/ Language: English / Genre:sf, / Series: Void

The Temporal Void

Peter Hamilton

The Intersolar Commonwealth is in turmoil as the Living Dream's deadline for launching its Pilgrimage into the Void draws closer. Not only is the Ocisen Empire fleet fast approaching on a mission of genocide, but also an internecine war has broken out between the post-human factions over the destiny of humanity. Countering the various and increasingly desperate agents and factions is Paula Myo, a ruthlessly single-minded investigator, beset by foes from her distant past and colleagues of dubious allegiance…but she is fast losing a race against time. At the heart of all this is Edeard the Waterwalker, who once lived a long time ago deep inside the Void. He is the messiah of Living Dream, and visions of his life are shared by, and inspire billions of humans. It is his glorious, captivating story that is the driving force behind Living Dream's Pilgrimage, a force that is too strong to be thwarted. As Edeard nears his final victory the true nature of the Void is finally revealed.

THE TEMPORAL VOID

THE VOID TRILOGY BOOK 2

Peter F. Hamilton

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MAP OF MAKKATHRAN

ONE

Strangely enough, it was the oak trees which Justine Burnelli always remembered from the day Centurion Station died. She was hurrying towards the safety bunker doors along with everyone else in the garden dome when she glanced back over her shoulder. The thick emerald grass was littered with the debris of the party, mashed canapes stamped into the grass, broken glasses and plates juddering about as the colossal gravity waves washed across the station in fast unrelenting succession. Overhead, the timid light emitted by the nebulas surrounding the galactic core was now smeared into pastel streaks by the dome's misty emergency force fields. Justine felt her weight reducing again. Yells of surprise and near-panic broke out from the staff pressed against her as they all fought for traction on the glowing orange path. Then a crack like a thunderbolt echoed across the dome. One of the huge lower boughs on a two-hundred-year-old oak tree split open close to the thick trunk, and the bough crashed down. Leaves swirled upwards like a flock of startled butterflies. The whole majestic tree sagged, with further fissures opening along the length of the trunk. It twisted as it started to fall into its neighbour. The elegant little tree house platform which the band had been playing on barely a minute ago splintered and snapped apart. The last glimpse Justine had of the trees was a couple of red squirrels scampering out of the toppled giants.

The malmetal safety bunker doors contracted behind her, and for a moment she was enveloped within an oasis of calm. It was a bizarre image, everyone still dressed in their best party clothes, breathing heavily with dishevelled hair and anxious faces. Director Trachtenberg was standing beside her, looking round wild-eyed.

'You okay? he asked.

She nodded, not quite trusting her voice.

Another of the gravity waves swept through the station. Once again Justine felt her weight lessen. Her u-shadow accessed the station's net, and she pulled out the sensor images of the sky above. The Raid's DF spheres were still accelerating across the star system to their new positions. She checked that the Silverbird, was unaffected by the weird gravity waves which the DF sphere's were throwing off. The starship's smartcore told her it was maintaining position just above the dusty lava field which served as the station's landing area.

'I've just conferred with our alien colleges, Director Trachtenberg announced. He smiled wryly. 'Those that talk to us, anyway. And we all agree the gravity shifts are beyond anything the safety systems were designed for. With regret I am ordering an immediate evacuation.

Several people groaned in dismay.

'You can't, Graffal Ehasz complained. 'This is what we're here for. Dear Ozzie, man, the data this event is spewing out. What we can learn is unprecedented! We can't just crawl away because of some safety restriction imposed by a committee back in the Commonwealth.

'I understand your concern, Trachtenberg said calmly. 'If the situation alters we will return. But, for now, please embark your designated ship.

Justine could see most of the staff were relieved; while Ehasz and a small hard-core science clique radiated resentment. When she opened her mind to the local gaiafield the clash of emotion was pronounced. But Ehasz was definitely in the minority.

Trachtenberg leaned in close to Justine and quietly asked, 'Can your ship cope with this?

'Oh yes, she assured him.

'Very well, if you would please depart with the rest of us.

'Of course.

Through her link with the smartcore she saw the safety bunkers break surface, titanium-black spheres bubbling up out of the dusty lava plain. They started to glide smoothly towards the waiting starships.

With the evacuation procedures obviously working, Justine's nerves calmed considerably. She asked the Silverbird's smartcore to open a link along the tenuous Navy communication relay all the way back to the Commonwealth, thirty-thousand lightyears away. 'Dad?

'You're okay, then, Gore Burnelli said. 'Thank Christ for that.

Leaking along the miniscule bandwidth was the faintest sensation of a smile. Warm Caribbean sunlight was shining on his lips. It was a comfort that delivered a completely unexpected emotional jolt to Justine. She felt her throat muscles tensing up as her eyes filled with tears and her cheeks flushed. Goddamn this stupid body, she raged at its weakness. But she smiled back weakly, ignoring the way people in the shelter were looking at her. 'Yeah, I'm okay.

'Good, then get a load of this. I've been monitoring the Navy relay link to Centurion Station. Your new friend Trachtenberg just called the Cleric Conservator to tell him about the expansion phase. He did that before he even bothered to warn the Navy what was happening.

Justine was proud of the way she managed to avoid glancing in Trachtenberg's direction. Okay, maybe this old body's not quite so useless after all. 'Really. How interesting.

'It gets better. About five hours ago the Second Dreamer told his Skylord pal that he wasn't going to lead anyone into the Void. Next thing we know, this expansion begins. I don't know what your take is, but nobody back here thinks it's a coincidence.

'The Second Dreamer caused this?

'It wasn't deliberate. At least I seriously hope it wasn't. Cause and effect, I guess. The Skylords exist to ferry souls into the Heart of the Void, and someone tells them that their new supply is going to be cut off. Junkies tend to get irritated and irrational about such things.

'The Skylords aren't junkies.

'Don't take everything so literally. I'm doing metaphors, or allegories, some shit like that. Point is, now they know we're out here waiting to be guided, if we don't come to them…

'They come to us, she whispered.

'Looks like it.

'But nothing can survive the boundary.

'The original ship did. Somehow.

'Has the Second Dreamer said anything?

'Not a goddamn word, not even "ooops, sorry" . Conceited little turd. I thought I was arrogant, but Jeezus!

'Well, he's going to have to do something.

'That's the consensus back here, too. The thing is, Living Dream is closing in on him. That's going to make serious trouble if they get their hands on him; our friend Ilanthe will make sure of that.

Justine accessed the data coming from the station, watching with concern as their life support equipment was stressed close to its limit by the gravity waves. 'It doesn't get much worse than this, Dad.

'Shit, I'm sorry, angel. Are you going to get out all right?

'You know you don't have to worry about me. Hang on for a moment, we've reached the starships.

People were activating their personal force fields as the airlock's outer door parted. Some of them were also taking pressure suits from the bunker's lockers, making doubly sure they were safe. Justine knew she could depend on her biononics to protect her from anything the unnamed planet could throw at her. Her integral force field strengthened round her. She slipped her heeled pumps off and followed the others out through the triple pressure curtain. Ten aluminium steps and she was standing on the lava in bare feet and a completely incongruous little black cocktail dress. Tremors managed to shake the soles of her feet through the protective cushion of the force field. A gentle argon breeze fluttered round her, raising short-lived twisters of dust that never came above her knees.

The bunker had come to rest a hundred metres beyond the squat building holding the base's main airlock. Two of the five Navy ships were poised on either side of her, hanging a few metres above the ground on ingrav, rocking slightly as they compensated for the treacherous gravity. Justine hastened round the nose of one to see the Silverbird waiting a further twenty metres beyond it. A welcome sight, its simple purple ovoid shape floating casually over the lava, holding a lot steadier than the Navy ships. She grinned in relief and scuttled underneath. The airlock at the base of the fuselage bulged inwards, opening into a dark funnel leading to the heart of the ship. The smartcore was already countering gravity to pull her inside when she saw something moving on the horizon. An impossible sight.

'Stop, she commanded.

Her feet paused ten centimetres above the lava. Retinal inserts zoomed in. It was a mounted Silfen. The elf-like hominoid was clad in a thick cobalt-blue coat embroidered with the most fabulous stipple of jewels that sparkled in the wavering pastels of starlight. His black hat was tall and pointed, with a simple gold ribbon fluttering from the tip. A gloved hand gripped a long phosphorescent spear which he held aloft, as if in salute. It might have been such a gesture, for he was leaning forward in his saddle, half standing on the stirrups. As if his appearance wasn't astonishing enough, she was dumbfounded by his mount. The creature most closely resembled a terrestrial rhinoceros, except it was almost the size of an elephant, and had two flat tails that swept from side to side. Its long shaggy fur was bright scarlet, and the four horns curving from the side of its long head were devilishly sharp and curved. Justine, who had once ridden on the Charlemagnes which the old Narsoomians had produced on Far Away, knew that this fearsome beast was a true warrior-animal.

Her ancient body instinctively produced a flood of worry hormones just at the sight of it.

The Silfen simply shouldn't have been here. She'd never known one of their paths had led to this remote, desolate planet. And he was an oxygen breather; so, she suspected, was his lethally regal mount. This tenuous, radiation-saturated argon atmosphere was deathly to living things. Then she grinned at herself and her silly affront. Who was she to make such a claim, standing exposed to the eerie energy emissions of the Wall stars in nothing more than a disgracefully short cocktail dress?

So it wasn't an absolute impossibility to find a Silfen here. Nor that he was using some technological protection from the environment.

But… 'Why? she whispered.

'The Silfen live to experience, Gore told her, equally absorbed by the alien's presence. 'Face it, my girl, you don't get a much bigger experience than watching the end of the galaxy crashing down around you.

She'd forgotten she'd left the link open. 'A very short experience, she retorted sourly. 'And what is that thing he's riding?

'Who knows? I remember Ozzie saying the Silfen he encountered on a winter planet rode to the hunt on odd creatures.

'Odd, not terrifying.

'Does it matter? I imagine he's here on the toughest steed he can find in honour of the event. After all, you've got the butchest starship in that section of the galaxy.

'A butch starship? But it broke her enchantment with the strange alien. She bowed her head formally at him. He dipped the spear in return, and sat back on his small saddle.

The Silverbird drew her up into the small luxurious cabin. Once inside, she relaxed into a deep curving chair that the deck extended. Within the ANA designed craft she was as safe now as it was possible for any human to be. The starship's sensors showed her the last of the station staff hurrying into the airlocks of the Navy ships. Another two Silfen had joined the first watcher. Her father was right, she acknowledged, they would only come here for something momentous. For her, their presence served only to amplify the whole deadly panorama unfolding outside.

'Let's go, she told the smartcore.

The Silverbird rose from Centurion Station ahead of all the other starships. As the rest of them began to surge up after her they made for a strangely varied flock. Commonwealth Navy ships sleek beside the cumbersome Ticoth vessels; while the glittering purple spheres of the Ethox danced nimbly round the big tankers containing the Suline. In another time she would have enjoyed travelling in the elegant avian-like artificial-life constructs that soared and swooped to carry the Forleene away from danger. Despite the devastation raging all around them, few of the departing species could resist a quick scan in the direction of the metal cube housing the Kandra. None, therefore, were wholly surprised when the whole mass simply lifted cleanly from the dusty ground and accelerated smoothly away from the collapsing structures of the observation project.

Justine was ridiculously proud of the way that none of them seemed able to match the Silverbird's acceleration. It had taken the ultradrive ship just a few seconds to reach an altitude of five hundred kilometres, where it stopped to scrutinize the last minutes of Centurion Station. Another gravity wave shook the hull so violently the onboard gravity generator could barely counter it. Justine felt a distinct shiver run through the cabin. The unnamed planet curved away below the fuselage, its ancient geology stubbornly resistant to the worst effects of the awesome gravity waves washing invisibly through its mantle. Underneath her, the hot Ethox tower was the first to succumb; rocking from side to side until the undulations became too great for the safety systems to compensate for. It toppled with slow grace to shatter against the unyielding lava. Big waves of water cascaded out from splits in the Suline tanks, pushing a spume of debris ahead of them. Flying spray quickly solidified into sharp needles of hail, to be re-absorbed by the dark water. Inevitably, the cold won, producing a rumpled ice lake three kilometres across. Thin greyclouds streamed out of cracks in domes of both the human and the Forleene, quickly dissipating in the weak gusts of argon.

In an astonishingly short time the structures were flattened, joining the greater enclave of ruins which marked the site where hundreds of alien species had spent millennia observing the terrible, enigmatic Void at the centre of the galaxy. Justine switched her attention to the wounded sky above. As if they could feel what was happening beyond the Wall stars, the massive ion storms were seething with a rare angry sheen, brighter than she'd seen in her brief time at the station.

The Silverbird was tracking the Raiel's gas-giant-sized DF spheres as they continued their flight across the star system. Gravity waves spilled out from them with astonishing force, distorting the orbits within the main asteroid rings. A couple of small moons caught in the backwash had also changed inclination. All nine of the DFs were heading in towards the small orange star which Centurion Station's never-named planet was in orbit around. As the ship watched, the photosphere started to dim.

'Holy crap, Justine yelped. The DFs must be drawing power directly from the star. She wondered how they would manifest it. The effect was fascinating, almost countering the anxiety she felt. There had been a few minutes after the emergency began that she'd seriously thought Centurion Station was where her body would finally die.

As if sharing her thought, Director Trachtenberg opened a channel to all the human starships. 'Status report please, is everyone all right?

'I'm fine, she reported back to the CNE Dalfrod, where he was embarked, along with the senior staff.

Once he'd established all his own staff were safe, the director exchanged messages with the alien craft ascending out of the atmosphere. They all confirmed that everyone had escaped intact; though they had to assume the Kandra were safe as the enigmatic cube didn't respond to any communication.

'We'll return to the Commonwealth immediately, Trachtenberg announced. 'From what the observation systems can ascertain, we should manage to stay ahead of the boundary. It's expanding at about three or four lightyears an hour. That gives us a huge safety margin.

'Is the data still coming in? Justine asked.

'Some of it. It's patchy now, there's a lot going on in the Wall we don't understand. I expect most of the disturbances we're registering are coming from the Raiel defence systems, but even so we can keep a reduced watch until the sensors are overcome. We're relaying as much as we can to the Navy Exploration Division centre back home.

'I see.

Justine watched the other starships reach her altitude, feeling strangely annoyed with them and herself. Surely there was something else to be done other than simply flee? It smacked of not a little cowardice, ignorant peasants cowering from the lightning storm, howling that the gods were angry, looking for a sacrifice to appease them. And we stopped that nonsense millennia ago. Yet for all our enlightenment we're right back there sheltering from the onslaught in our nice dry cave. Then the ships were accelerating past her, starting to disperse as they headed back towards their own home stars. The Forleene were the first to go ftl, slipping down into wormholes which closed immediately. A last farewell hanging in the ether from their pack leader.

The Silverbird's cabin rocked again. Eighty million miles away the DFs were streaking into a low orbit against the darkening star. The motion hardened her determination. This is not the way it should be.

'Dad?

'Still here.

'What have the Raiel said about the expansion?

'Sweet fuck all. The High Angel is a lifeboat, remember. Their defence systems are all concentrated round your part of the galaxy. Anyway, we can hardly blame them for not telling us anything. Right now every sentient species in the galaxy is pissed at us over the Pilgrimage, and who can blame them. I'm pissed at us.

'I know. That's why I'm going in, she said, surprising herself at the speed of the thought.

'You're doing what,

'Heading in to the Void. Even as she told him she was instructing the smartcore, laying down the course. Fast. Before I chicken out.

'You're doing no such thing, my girl.

The Silverbird dropped smoothly into hyperspace, heading in towards the Wall stars at fifty lightyears an hour. 'Tell him, she said to her father. 'Tell the Second Dreamer. Get him to ask the Skylord to let me in. Once I'm in, once I'm talking to the Skylord direct, I'll try and explain the situation, the damage their boundary is causing.

'Get your ass back here right fucking now!

'Dad. No. This is our chance at a diplomatic solution. The Raiel have tried force for a million years. It doesn't work.

'Come back. You can't get in. This thing is killing the whole fucking galaxy. Your ship…

'Humans can get in, we already know that. Somehow we can do it. And if the Second Dreamer helps me, I'll stand a really good chance.

'This is insane.

'I have to do this, Dad. Somebody has to make the effort. We have to try a human method. We're part of this galaxy now, a big part. It's our turn to attempt our way. We have the right. The blood was pounding in her ears as she hyped herself up. 'I'm going to carry the torch for all of us. If I fail, then… we try something else. That's being human, too.

'Justine.

Over thirty thousand lightyears she could feel his anguish. For a split second, she shared it. 'Dad, if anyone can get to the Second Dreamer, if anyone can make them see reason, it's you, it's the Gore Burnelli. All he has to do is tell the Skylord I'm out here. Ask him. Beg him. Offer him riches. Whatever it takes. You can do it. Please, Dad.

'God-damn, why are you always so fucking difficult?

'I'm your daughter.

Bitter laughter echoed across the stars. 'Of course I'll ask. I'll do a damn sight more than that. If he doesn't get down on his knees and beg that Skylord he'll wish all he faces is oblivion in the expansion.

'Now don't start threatening people, she rebuked immediately.

'Yeah, yeah.

'I'll try and keep a channel open to Centurion Station's relay as long as I can. The Navy systems are tough, they should hold out a while yet.

'Okay, I'll go find me the little tit responsible for this almighty screw-up.

'Thanks, Dad.

'Godspeed.

* * * * *

At three o'clock in the morning Chris Turner left the staff canteen on the east side of Colwyn City's docks and grimaced at the rain splattering on to his face. He'd hoped the unseasonal weather front would blow over while he was taking his break. But no, the thick clouds showed no sign of relenting. His semi-organic jacket rolled a collar up round his neck, and he hurried back to the maintenance depot.

Chris couldn't see anything moving in the docks tonight. Not that other nights were much different. Night time staffing levels were low. Bots were off line for maintenance, which was why he'd pulled this grotty shift — it wasn't popular but it paid well. Trans-ocean barges stayed moored to the quay while their crews slept or clubbed the night away in town. Warehouses were shut.

There wasn't any activity in the city, either. The rain had put a halt to the usual nightlife. Capsules and ground vehicles had hauled the last optimistic revellers back to their homes a long time ago. He could just make out the huge single span arch bridge over the Cairns, its lights a hazy smear through the rain. Normally there would be something driving over it, or a few taxis sliding along its metro rail. But not tonight. He shivered. The city like this was actually kind of spooky. To counter the feeling of isolation he reached down into the gaiafield to gain some emotional comfort from the eternal thoughts whirling within. The usual busy background babble slithered round him like noisy spectres; thoughts that called, mournfully and eagerly, feelings which intrigued, though he shied away from the sadder ones.

A little more comfortable now he knew there were other humans still alive and awake, Chris quickened his pace. There were another eight general purpose bots that needed an overhaul before morning. Even with the company smartcore interfaced with the engineering bays back in the maintenance depot, he'd be hard pressed to finish on time. Yet again he wondered if the pay for late shift was truly worth the cost. His friends only ever got to see him at the weekends, and then his sleep pattern made him lousy company.

He walked along the long line of landing pads, boots splashing in the puddles that were expanding over the vast apron of concrete. Gentle green-tinged ripples reflected the luminescence given off by the lighting globes on their high posts overhead. Thick droplets splattered down noisily from the dark hulls of parked starships.

Up in front and ten metres above the slick concrete a small star flared blue-violet. Chris's mouth dropped open in astonishment. You couldn't work in the starship business, even in a peripheral position like his, without knowing the signature spectrum of Cherenkov radiation. 'That's wrong, he said dumbly.

The star vanished, and the air where it had been rippled. Chris was suddenly staring at a perfect black circle whose base touched the ground. The blackness changed again, lightening to blue-grey, then receding at a speed which made him giddy. Instinct brought his arms up for balance, he was certain he was falling forwards. When he steadied herself he was looking along an infinite tunnel. Its soft-glowing fabric brightened intolerably as dazzling sunlight streamed out. Not Viotia's sun, he knew. This was another star altogether.

The light dimmed for a moment as a big capsule slipped out of the opening. Chris scurried away to one side. He could see the wormhole had lowered itself so the bottom quarter was now below ground level, giving the long line of armour-clad figures a broad flat path to march through from their world. Above them, capsules slid through nose to tail. Boots were hitting the wet concrete in a steady rhythm, echoing round the high walls of the dock buildings. It was an eerily brutal sound, Chris thought. Over a hundred of the soldiers were on the Viotia side already. Soldiers? But what else could he call them?

Finally, the impossibility he was witnessing started to register. His u-shadow was throwing out frantic emergency calls to his family, friends, work-colleagues, company offices, the police, the mayor, government… His mind let loose a powerful wail of shock into the gaiafield, which drew some instant reactions of surprise from local sharers, who immediately became curious indeed as his vision opened to them.

'You there! an amplified voice boomed from the first rank of the marching figures. There must have been thirty capsules in the air now, starting to accelerate out across the city, and still more were rushing through. From his angle, the wormhole provided Chris with a narrow window out across the vast field on the other side. Warm afternoon sunlight shone down cosily on row after row of armoured figures, thousands of them — tens of thousands. Most of them were in shadow from the armada of regrav capsules suspended in the air above.

Chris Turner turned and started to run.

'Halt, the harsh voice commanded. 'We are the legitimate police of Viotia, accredited by your Prime Minister. Halt now or face the consequences.

Chris kept on running. This couldn't be happening. This was the Commonwealth. It was safe and it was comfortable. People with guns didn't invade from other planets, not even in troubled times like these. Not happening!

'Last warning. Halt.

His family was starting to respond to his frantic calls. Those he shared himself with through the gaiafield were producing the same dismayed reaction as his own. Then the jangle pulse struck, and Chris was unconscious before he hit the wet concrete.

* * * * *

Elvin's Payback was only an hour out from Viotia when the shit hit the fan. Everyone on board went quiet at more or less the same time as their u-shadows reported the news that was breaking into the Unisphere. They accessed in astonishment as images of armoured paramilitary police and their support capsules poured out of the wormhole in Colwyn City's docks. In a carefully choreographed political sequence the Cleric Conservator's office on Ellezelin formally issued a public invitation to Viotia to join the Free Trade Zone. It was swiftly followed by Viotia's Prime Minister accepting on behalf of her planet. One minute later the wormhole had opened.

So Oscar Monroe wasn't the least surprised when Paula called him on a secure link a couple of minutes later. 'We knew they were planning annexation, Paula said. 'The trigger factor has to be the Second Dreamer.

'That figures, Oscar said. 'Everyone's scared crapless over the devourment phase. If we do manage to get hold of him, I'd like to shake some sense into the stupid bastard myself.

'I think the devourment has taken Living Dream by surprise as much as everyone else. The dream simply confirmed his location for them. They're acting on that.

Oscar reviewed some of the images relayed by reporters who'd gathered around the edge of the docks. 'So we can safely assume he's in Colwyn City.

'Yes, but they don't know exactly where. If they had an accurate fix, their embedded agents would have simply run a covert snatch operation. This is an indicator of Ethan's desperation. Our sources on the ground indicate they're shutting down all traffic in and out of the city, ground, air and space.

'Closing the noose.

'Exactly.

'That doesn't make our mission any easier. We'll have to infiltrate through the perimeter.

'Don't complicate things. I'd suggest you simply fly straight down into the docks.

'You're kidding me, right?

'Not at all. Get the smartcore to display the ship's stealth function to you. I don't believe that Living Dream has anything on Viotia which can detect you at night in the rain.

'Oh crap. All right.

The link ended, and he turned to his shipmates to explain.

'I can insert some software that will help cover our approach, Liatris McPeierl said. 'Their network is already growing out from the docks, I'm monitoring its development through the unisphere, but I can crack the junction nodes. That'll let me into their sensors and command links.

'The docks will be a good position, Tomansio said. 'It puts us in right at the heart of their operation. I don't care how dense their network is, or how powerful their smartcores, it will be chaotic down there to start with. That provides us with a golden opportunity.

'All right, Oscar said, 'you guys are the experts. Tell me what approach route you want.

* * * * *

Forty minutes later Elvin's Payback emerged into real space a thousand kilometres above Colwyn City. It was already fully stealthed, capable of avoiding the most advanced military-grade sensors. A huge case of overkill. Viotia's civil space detectors could barely locate a starship out at geosynchronous orbit when its beacon was signalling. As yet, the Ellezelin forces pouring into the docks hadn't established any kind of sensor coverage above the atmosphere. They were concentrating on tracking capsule traffic in the city, and apprehending anyone who tried to leave.

Nobody was looking for craft coming into the area. The commercial starships which had arrived after the annexation began were staying in orbit, awaiting developments and clear orders from their owners.

Following Tomansio's directions, Oscar brought the starship straight down above the estuary a couple of miles outside the city. It was still raining, the swollen river covered by rolling cloud. With a high intensity optical distortion shimmering round its fuselage, the ovoid starship looked like a particularly dense patch of drizzle in the few wisps of sombre starlight that defused through the cloud. Electronic sensors simply lost focus, mass scanners were unable to find anything heavier than air in the space it occupied. Even Higher field functions, had there been any operating, would have been hard pressed to find anything. If it had been broad daylight on a clear morning, then maybe someone might have spotted something. But not this dreary shadowed night.

Oscar took them down to three metres above the muddy water, and steered upriver using passive sensors alone. Several of the large Ellezelin forces' support capsules streaked across the sky above them, on their way to intercept fleeing citizens. Elvin's Payback remained invisible, though that didn't stop Oscar holding his breath and foolishly staring up at the cabin ceiling as the capsules passed overhead. He remembered the war films he used to watch in his first life, already ancient then, which depicted silent running in submarines. The principles here were comparable. He was even tempted to take the starship underwater to make their approach, completing the similarity. Tomansio had talked him out of it, pointing out that the noise and displacement they'd make breaking surface would probably give them away.

So they drifted in over the deserted quays like a ghost through mist. According to the information Liatris had hacked from the invaders' network, several paramilitary squads had been deployed round the perimeter of the docks, supported by ten armed capsules, to secure their immediate footprint. Nobody was watching the dock's long river frontage.

Beckia McKratz had infiltrated the dock's original commercial network, skilfully manipulating the nodes with software that opened up channels without the management monitors being aware of anything untoward. Even before they reached land she'd assumed complete command of a giant cargo warehouse belonging to the Bootel & Leicester import agency. As they passed above an empty barge repair bay just outside she opened one of the plyplastic doors, and the starship slipped into the dark enclosed space beyond, dripping cold rain onto the enzyme-bonded concrete floor. The door shut silently behind them, and five rounded pedestal legs swelled out from the base of the hull. Oscar landed them next to a tall stack of yellow and green cargo crates containing civil engineering excavators manufactured offworld.

'Down and safe, Oscar said, letting out a long breath of relief.

'We're safe, Tomansio said cheerfully. 'I don't fancy anyone else's chances.

* * * * *

When Mellanie's Redemption dropped out of hyperspace four thousand kilometres above Sholapur, Troblum looked down on a continent rolling slowly into the dawn. The bright new light illuminated a wide monsoon building just off the subtropical coast where the city state of Ikeo squatted amid spectacularly craggy landscape. He studied the weather with interest. There weren't many monsoons on Sholapur, but those that did materialize tended towards the fierce. It would reach the land in less than two hours.

On the chair opposite him in the starship's cabin, the solido of Catriona Saleeb lounged back, smiling contentedly. She pushed a hand through her curly black hair, a languid movement he always found sensual. 'That storm could help us, she said in her husky voice.

Trisha Marina Halgarth's solido walked across the small floor space to Catriona. She wore a pair of tight black leather jeans, and a small pure-white T-shirt to show off a nicely athletic body.

Green butterfly-wing OCtattoos quivered slowly across her cheeks as she wriggled herself on to the cushioning beside Catriona. The two girls put their arms comfortably round each other; Trisha flexed her bare toes. 'Do you think so? she asked Catriona.

'It's going to take hours to pass across Ikeo. That'll mess up sensors, no matter how sophisticated they are. There will be force fields on over most estates, which will block a lot of low angle scanning. That's to our advantage, isn't it Troblum, darling?

'Could be, he admitted. What he would have liked was Isabella Halgarth's opinion on the situation, but he'd lost her I-sentient personality program when he'd left the Accelerator Faction station, using it in a projector to convince the sensors his starship was still sitting passively in the docking bay. Isabella had an altogether more devious outlook than the other girls, which would have made her ideal to analyse forthcoming events.

'Not if you try and arrive during the storm, Tricia said. 'Even with this ship's ingrav you'll be struggling to hold level in the winds. Best you leave it to provide cover if you have to leave in a hurry.

Troblum accessed the external sensor imagery again. It was a large storm. Even from this height he could see flashes of sheet lightning ripping through the dark clouds. At his request the smartcore overlaid the sensor patterns guarding Ikeo from uninvited intruders. The Mellanie's Redemption could sneak through unnoticed. Probably. But it would be a close fought electronic battle. And Tricia was right, the storm would produce a particularly difficult environment to fly through. He ran a passive scan for orbiting ships, but there was no inbound or outbound traffic that he could detect, just Sholapur's small band of geosynchronous satellites. 'Activate our full stealth suite and take us down, he told the smartcore; then pulled up a map of the city, and designated a small valley five miles from Stubsy Florae's home, just outside the estate's official boundary.

* * * * *

Troblum was sweating with worry as they descended through the last levels of cloud. Then they were past the cold vapour, and the rugged land was only two kilometres below. In the wan predawn light the starship blended perfectly into the grey overcast sky as it sank fast through the clear air. He landed it next to some tall palm-equivalent trees that were already starting to wave about as the wind built up.

To visit Stubsy Florae he selected an armoured fabric one-piece he could wear under his toga suit. Then he ran a fast check on the biononics which produced his integral force field to make sure of their functionality. In combination, the armour and shielding should be able to stop a great many weapons, but he didn't delude himself about their ultimate ability if a fully enriched Advancer agent cornered him. For a moment he considered taking a weapon. There were two jelly guns stashed away in a locker. Both of which would need charging. But he didn't have any experience in physical combat, his biononics could produce a respectable distortion pulse if pushed, and besides Stubsy wouldn't like him carrying that kind of hardware into his home. It was going to be bad enough turning up unannounced and then asking for a further favour. So he left the guns in the locker and went into the airlock.

There was a one-man regrav scooter stowed in a midship cargo hold. Troblum gave it a suspicious stare as it floated out to hover a couple of centimetres above the thick blue-tinged grass. He hadn't used it in decades. It looked uncomfortably small now, and it bobbed about alarmingly under his weight as he tried to lift his leg over the saddle. It took three attempts, but he eventually managed to sit astride it, wincing at what he was sure was a pulled muscle just above his hip. Biononics went to work tracking down and repairing the cells in his overstrained flesh. A transparent plyplastic visor unfurled from the front of the scooter, producing a streamlined hemisphere to shield the rider from the slipstream, though it had to curve outwards to enclose Troblum. He directed the little craft towards Stubsy's grand villa just outside the valley, keeping his speed to a prudent fifty kilometres an hour at a three metre altitude.

While he was travelling, his u-shadow analysed all the spaceports whose networks were connected to the sparse planetary cybersphere. It produced a list of starships currently on the ground, none of which were Earth-registered. Hardly complete, he acknowledged, but then he was fairly sure that Paula Myo wouldn't draw attention to herself here, which is undoubtedly what an Earth registration would do. Nor was there a ship that fitted the profile of an Accelerator agent. If anyone was here for him, they weren't out in the open.

His scooter arrived at the line of slim silver pillars which marked out the boundary of Stubsy's estate. His field functions reported several sensors locking on as he slowed. He called Stubsy's code. It took a disconcertingly long time for the dealer to answer.

'Troblum, man, is that you out there?

'Of course it's me. Will you let me through your perimeter, please.

'I didn't know you were on Sholapur. You didn't land at Ikeo spaceport.

'I told you I needed discretion for our last transaction.

'Yeah, yeah, right.

Troblum gave the silver pillars an uneasy glance. He was feeling very alone and exposed out here. 'Are you going to let me in?

'Right. Yeah. Sure. I've cleared you through the defence systems. Come on in.

The top of the two pillars in front of him turned green. Troblum eased the scooter forward between them, tensing up as he passed over the line. When nothing happened he breathed easier.

Beyond the big white villa, a dense curtain of rain was heading in across the steel-grey sea. As he settled in front of the high glass doors Troblum looked down the long slope to the lovely little cove below. There was no sign of Stubsy's glide-boat anchored offshore.

Stubsy opened the door, and gave Troblum a nervous grin. 'Hey, big man, how's it going, huh?

'No change, Troblum said. His gaze swept across Stubsy, who was hanging on to the side of the door, preventing any glimpse of the big hallway beyond. The man was wearing his usual expensive and tasteless garb, too-tight gold sports trousers and a shirt with a vivid black and orange flower pattern, open to the waist. But his face looked haggard, as if he was suffering the mother of all hangovers, with dark circles under his eyes, and at least two days' stubble: He looked flushed, as well, his skin hot and sweaty.

'I'm here to pick up my collection.

'Yeah, Stubsy said, scratching the base of his neck. 'Yeah. Yeah. That's it. You are. Somewhere in the house behind him was the sound of bare feet running on tiles.

Troblum had to consult his social interaction program. 'Can I get them now, please? he read off his exovison script.

'Okay, Stubsy said reluctantly. He swung the door open and stood aside.

The open area in the middle of the house was exactly as before, with waterfalls bubbling swiftly down the surrounding boulders to top up the pool. Green and yellow flowering plants twice Troblum's height waved in the gusts that were starting to spill over the low roof. Nobody was swimming. Three of Stubsy's Olympic warrior women companions were waiting in the patio area, with one lying on a sun lounger while the other two stood motionless beside the long bar. Troblum's mild field scan showed him that all their enrichments were inactive.

The sound of thunder rolled through the sky. All three companions looked upwards at the noise.

'Are you going to put up a force field? Troblum asked Stubsy as he sank his bulk into a sun lounger. The wood and fabric creaked as it accepted his lull weight. He'd chosen the one next to the companion in the emerald green bikini. She was gripping the edges of her own sun lounger very tight, as if she was holding herself down against a gravity inversion. 'That storm looked big.

'Force field, Stubsy said. 'Yeah. Good idea, man. Uh, yeah, we can do that, sure.

'Did my collection arrive okay?

Stubsy nodded his head, and perched himself on a sun lounger beside the companion in the green bikini. 'Yeah, he said slowly. 'It's here. We ferried it over from the freighter as agreed. The captain was very curious, you know. I had to slot some extra cash his way. I've got it all downstairs. Man, I wasn't expecting so much junk, you know.

'I have been collecting for a long time. And it is not junk. Troblum glanced up as a force field came on above the villa. The sound of the wind shrank to nothing. 'I'd like to get it loaded on my starship today.

'Where is your starship, man?

'Close, Troblum said. He wasn't going to give anything away until he'd sorted out payment and the collection was ready to move. 'Do you have a cargo capsule?

'Sure, sure.

'There's something else I need from you if you don't mind. I'll pay for the trouble, of course.

Stubsy drew down a loud breath, as if he was having trouble swallowing. 'What's that, then, man?

'I want to meet someone here in private. Someone you wouldn't ordinarily have at your house. You'll have to clear them with the city's defence system.

'Who?

'Think of her as a police officer.

'Police? Stubsy grimaced a smile. 'Ho boy. Well, what the hell, we're all going to die in the Void boundary anyway, right?

'Possibly, Troblum said. He didn't know what to make of the expansion phase yet. If it really couldn't be stopped then fleeing to a colony world was going to be no use at all. He'd have to travel all the way to another galaxy, as Nigel Sheldon had been rumoured to do. It would be a huge challenge for the Mellanie's Redemption. Fortunately, the hardware he'd taken from the Accelerator station should make such a flight achievable, if he could ever assemble the myriad components and make it work. 'So I can call her and arrange a meeting?

Stubsy produced a strange little laugh, his eyes crinkled up. 'Sure.

'Thank you, Troblum said. He used the secure link he was maintaining to his starship to call ANA: Governance's security division.

'Yes, Troblum, ANA: Governance said.

'Connect me to Paula Myo, please.

'As you wish.

Paula Myo came on line. 'Are you ready to meet?

'I told you not to stealth your ship.

'I haven't.

'Then where are you?

'Close to Sholapur.

'All right. I'm at Ikeo city, Florae's villa, I've arranged for him to let you through the city's defences. How long will it take you to reach me?

'I can be there within a couple of hours.

'Fine, I'll be waiting. Troblum ended the call. He glanced over at Stubsy, who hadn't moved. 'She'll be here in two hours. Which wasn't exactly what she'd said, a pedantic section of his mind acknowledged. Paula would never lie, but there were a lot of ambiguities in the way she'd phrased it.

'Cool, Stubsy said.

'Can I see the collection?

'Sure thing, man. It's downstairs.

Stubsy led the way back into the villa. The three companions stayed beside the pool, though their eyes followed Troblum like targeting sensors as he walked after Stubsy.

One of the arching doors in the hallway opened to a set of concrete stairs leading down. Stubsy stood at the top as the polyphoto strips came on. He seemed reluctant to go down.

'Down here? Troblum asked.

'Yeah, Stubsy whispered.

The dealer was sweating again, Troblum saw. Whatever excess he'd indulged in last night must have been substantial for his body to take so long to flush the effects out.

Stubsy started down the stairs. Troblum was right behind him, keen to make sure his precious collection of Starflyer War memorabilia was unharmed. Everything had been in an individual case with a stabilizer field, but he'd had to rely on chartered commercial carriers to get it all to Sholapur without any supervision on his part — it was the only way to avoid Marius's attention. So much could have gone wrong.

There was a broad passage at the bottom of the stairs, carved into the naked rock, with smaller corridors branching off every few metres. They were lined with malmetal doors. Stubsy's vaults were a lot larger than the villa above.

Troblum nearly asked, What do you keep down here? But his social interaction program told him that Stubsy was likely to get upset by that kind of question.

Stubsy turned off into one of the side passages. A malmetal door opened for him. Lights came on in the chamber beyond. Troblum walked into a large circular chamber filled with low tables. His collection was there waiting for him. Every priceless case, their surfaces shimmering with protective shielding. It was going to be tough squeezing everything into Mellanie's Redemption, he acknowledged, some of the larger items might even have to be discarded. His u-shadow performed a fast inventory, checking case logs. They'd been banged around more than Troblum liked, but the cases had protected their contents perfectly. Smiling, he ran his hand over the case containing the handheld array with a foxory casing; the expensive unit had belonged to Mellanie Rescorai herself, a gift from her lover Morton before his trial. Troblum could just discern its outline below the shimmer.

'Thank you, Troblum said. 'I know you didn't have to do this. When he glanced up at Stubsy Florae he saw an expression his emotional context program interpreted as anger and contempt.

The villa nodes relaying his secure link to the Mellanie's Redemption went dead.

'All this makes me feel quite at home, the Cat said.

Shock ran through Troblum's body in the same way as physical pain. His knees almost gave way, forcing him to clutch at the table. She stepped out from behind a huge casing containing the blunt nose cone belonging to a Wessex-based exospheric combat aerobot. Her lean body was dressed in a simple white suit that emitted a hazy glow as if she were some historical saint; it was wreathed in black bands which undulated slowly; ten of them formed a bizarre cage around her head. Troblum knew the suit had to be some kind of armour. Even now with fear so strong it threatened to reduce him to tears, he acknowledged she looked quite magnificent.

'Troblum, my dear, she said brightly as if she'd only just caught sight of him. 'How lovely to see you again. You're really a lot of fun. It was a brilliant game we played. Well, I thought so.

'Game? he said weakly. His integral force field had come on instantly, though he knew it would be no use against her.

The Cat took a few paces towards him. Troblum lurched backwards in near panic. Even now he couldn't resist admiring her movements; they really were feline.

'Why yes, darling, the Cat said. 'How funny you couldn't work it out. Marius was right, wasn't he? You don't connect with humans on an emotional level. You marched in here completely oblivious to dear old Stubsy and his naughty little posse. Didn't you see their faces, Troblum? Take a look now.

Troblum gave Stubsy a wild glance. The dealer's face was a rigid mask, teeth clamped together so hard his lips were quivering. Two of the companions appeared at the chamber door, tall and powerful. Troblum recognised them from his last visit.

Simonie, wearing a scarlet dress with a high hem; while Alcinda's taut muscles stretched her shiny black bikini fabric to near bursting point.

The Cat let out a mocking wolf-whistle. 'Aren't they gorgeous, and they play nasty, too, which is really fun. She cocked her head at Troblum. 'You still don't get it, do you? Fantastic. You are interesting. Run an emotional context recognition program, my dear. It'll tell you they're all very, very pissed off. They were when you came through the front door, and sadly they still are. All because of little old me.

'Okay, Troblum said. 'You're right, I didn't get it. Congratulations.

'I know. The Cat gave a fulsome pout. 'Me and Stubsy here had a small wager going. I thought you'd realize by the time you reached the pool, Stubsy said it would be as soon as you arrived and saw him. We both lost. Your fault.

'How did you find me? Troblum said. He didn't really have any tactical programs to run, no smart way to work out how to escape from an underground room with only one door and no communication. But then he was pretty sure even the best tactical program would tell him he was going to die. His own knowledge unfortunately supplied him with a host of extremely unpleasant methods she was known to use to kill her enemies (and friends), and that was before he called up her file to check. If he could just keep her talking… He glanced at the door again.

'Oh my! The Cat's delighted laughter rang across the chamber as she caught his unsubtle motion. 'Troblum, darling, are you going to make a run for it? Tell you what, I'll give you a five minute head start. Do you think your fat legs can reach the bottom of the stairs by then? Will you need to sit down and take a breather?

'Fuck you.

'Troblum! How jolly rude!

From anyone else it would have been ridiculous. From her, it frightened him even further.

'How did you find me? he repeated.

The Cat batted her eyes. 'It was so difficult. You're such a master covert agent. Let me see, could it be all the illegal money your Accelerator friends pay into your External world bank accounts, which is rather easily traceable to Stubsy here? Or was it when you called ANA: Governance and told my dearest old chum Paula Myo to meet you here? Humm, which was it now? My memory is not what it was.

'Oh. It wasn't often Troblum felt foolish, but the way she said it made him realize what an idiot he'd been. He'd suspected that the Unisphere might be compromised to a Faction, yet he still hadn't taken adequate precautions. And as for the money, well any half-rate e-head could trace money.

'Where's your ship? the Cat said.

Troblum shook his head. 'No. The smartcore had some very specific instructions should his secure link be broken. A timer was counting down in his exovision. It was a small glimmer of hope, though he suspected the kind of ship which the Accelerators had supplied her with would be able to burn the Mellanie's Redemption out of the sky with a single shot. More bad planning. That just left one chance.

'Troblum, she said as if chiding a child, 'I'd like to know where your ship is, and I want the command codes. And I believe that you of all people know you really shouldn't annoy me.

'I know. Why do you want the ship?

'Oh, come on, you know that, darling. Marius might be slightly peeved you made him look like a complete dickhead in front of his masters, but that hardly motivates me, now does it, Mr Me-expert?

'Paula. You want to use it to catch Paula.

She clapped her hands delightedly. 'She and I are going to be together for a very long time. I have plans, you see. Big plans for our shared future. And I need her intact. Which you're going to help me achieve, by convincing her that everything here is just hunky dory.

'There's no point. Nobody has a future any more. The galaxy is being eaten alive. We're all going to die within a few years.

A flicker of annoyance passed over the Cat's face. She gave Troblum a long stare. 'I want her to walk in here expecting to see you. Moderately unsuspecting, though she is a paranoid little bitch. So… Ship. Now.

'No.

'What do I do to people I don't like?

He shrugged, not wanting to think of the details he'd so laboriously extracted from various police reports over the decades.

'You will help me, she said. 'Don't make me threaten you. I'm only being this patient because I know you don't understand the consequences of your stupidity. So ask yourself this, how come Stubsy and his friends are being so cooperative?

Troblum turned to the dealer. It wasn't something he'd considered. Another mistake, he thought.

'Just help her, Stubsy said brokenly.

'I cheated, the Cat said, and rested a finger on her lips. 'Bad lady that I am. I used a small insert' She grinned at the companions who glared back at her through clenched teeth. 'And it was quite difficult to insert, wasn't it, girls? You know, I actually had to hold them down to do it there was so much girly squealing and wiggling. And look at them now, happy to do as they're told.

Troblum thought he might be sick. His biononics had to work hard at keeping his hormone glands suppressed. And finally he didn't need any programs to interpret the expression both Simonie and Alcinda registered, their fear and loathing. Simonie had a tear squeezing out of her right eye.

'The girls are going to hold you down now for me, Troblum, the Cat said. 'Even their silly little weapons enrichments can overcome your pitiful force field. Higher culture, she said with a shake of her head. 'Where do you people get off calling yourselves that? Talk about insecurities. And you think I've got psychological flaws.

The two companions started to walk towards Troblum. He ordered the shields on all the cases to switch off, as well as his own integral force field. The Cat's response was instantaneous. She vanished inside a silver glow, as though she'd been encased in moon-washed silk.

'Stop, Troblum told the companions.

They hesitated, looking at the Cat's glowing shape for instruction.

'Troblum? the Cat's smooth voice issued out of the protective aurora. 'What are you doing? You haven't got any defences now.

'Remember this? he asked and pointed at a grey ovoid on a table close to the door.

'No, the Cat said. Her tone was one of dangerous boredom.

'It was on the Abies ND47 you rode through into Boongate, Troblum explained, wishing he wasn't trembling and sweating so much. 'Somebody salvaged it and took it with them to their planet's new world. I never found out why, maybe they thought it would give them some kind of edge over their fellow settlers. But the government confiscated it, and then it got lost in evidence archives for several hundred years. Then a museum found it and—

'Troblum! The Cat's angry voice snapped across the chamber.

'Yes, sorry: it's a zone killer dispenser, Troblum said meekly. 'And I was really lucky when I bought it, the museum had kept it in a stabilizer field so it's still functional and active. The thing's about as antique as you can get, but in a confined space like this one I don't rate anyone's chances, not even in a force field like yours. What do you think?

There was a short pause. 'Are you trying to threaten me, darling? the Cat asked.

'I've got it on a double activation switch, Troblum said. 'I can trigger it if I think you're going to try and hurt me. Or if you're too quick for me, and I'm exterminated, that'll trigger it as well.

'Oh fuck me backwards with a power blade, Stubsy wailed. His logs were giving way, slitting him on to the floor. 'I can't take any more. His hands went over his head, and he started sobbing. 'Just fucking do it, man. End this, for fuck's sake. Kill us.

'He won't, the Cat said. 'He's not the type. If you fire that thing, fat boy, we all die, not just me. If you do as I say and help me capture Paula, I might even overlook this little misdemeanour. Carry on, Alcinda, she ordered.

Troblum sent an order into the dispenser's small management array; its malmetal surface rippled, opening fifty small portals. 'No.

Alcinda had taken one step towards him. Now she stopped again.

'Do it, the Cat said.

'They don't understand, Troblum said. 'It's not just the insert that helps you control them, they have hope. I don't. I know how stupid that is. I know you. You're probably one of the few people I actually do understand. That's why I turned my force field off. So there's no chance of me surviving the explosion. I know you're going to kill me no matter what. And we both know that I'll never get re-lifed even if the galaxy does survive. This is it for me, the end. Not just bodyloss, but real death. So I might as well do the human race a favour and take you with me.

'What about Stubsy and the girls? The Cat asked.

'Do it, you fucking bastard! Stubsy screamed.

'Yes, Alcinda growled. 'Take us— Her body stiffened, her back arching convulsively. Her spine bent so far Troblum thought it might snap. She clamped her hands to her head, elegant fingernails clawing long bloody streaks in her scalp as she tried to tear out the source of her agony. She screamed silently as her legs gave out.

'Let's not confuse the issue with other people's poor advice, the Cat said lightly. 'You still think you can get out of this, otherwise you would have fired the zone killer straight away. What's the deal?

'I don't know, Troblum said. 'I don't have a tactical program. This doesn't have a logical outcome. I'm just waiting for you to do something scary, then I fire it. We both die together. He stared at Alcinda who was writhing helplessly on the floor. Things like furry mushrooms were emerging from her eyes, mouth, and ears; then another one bloomed from her belly button. They began to spread wide, swelling.

The Cat laughed. 'Oh, darling, you are delectable. I'm the only person you understand, and because of that you're going to kill yourself. How about you walk out the door and rush into your starship while I wait here for Paula?

Troblum couldn't stop staring at Alcinda, who had begun to shake in a convulsive fit. Her head was now half-covered in the furry growths, with additional ones pushing out around the edges of her bikini bottoms. Tiny clear fluid drops glistened at the tip of each strand of fur. The shaking grew more violent. Troblum was seriously considering trying to kill her with a disruptor pulse if his biononics could put one together. 'I'd never make it to the stairs, he said, trying desperately to focus on what the Cat was saying. Alcinda's death would be a mercy, and she'd definitely have a secure memory store and re-life insurance. 'Stubsy's other companions would make sure of that.

The Cat made a small gesture with her hand. Alcinda stopped shuddering, her body collapsing limply to the rock floor. 'See. If that's all you're worried about, the girls are easily disposed of.

Troblum thought he was going to collapse himself. A stricken Simonie was gazing at Alcinda's body. The grey fur continued to spread outward. He'd never seen anyone die before, and certainly not in such a terrible fashion. 'Don't do that, Troblum gasped.

'Why? I thought you were going to kill us all, anyway.

Troblum began to accept that he really was going to die. In a way it was kind of fitting, that he would do it eliminating one of the most horrifying human beings who'd ever existed.

The villa nodes abruptly came on, flashing a short encrypted message he couldn't decode. He tried to use them to reconnect to his starship, but they wouldn't acknowledge his u-shadow.

'She's here, the Cat snarled happily. 'Was this why you were stalling, my dear? I thought she wasn't due for another couple of hours.

'Sorry, Troblum said. He couldn't help grinning.

'I won't let her save you, darling. The Cat brought an arm up, bulging through the aurora.

'You can go, Troblum said quickly.

'What?

'Go. Have your battle. If anyone can defeat you, it'll be Paula. I'll wait down here. Leave Simonie to guard me if you want. I can't get a message out to warn Paula. If you win I'll fire the zone killer. If she wins, well, you don't get to call the shots then, do you?

'Clever boy, the Cat said in an admiring tone. 'I accept. Stubsy, get up. You're going to have to be the bait now Troblum isn't playing.

'No! Stubsy howled. His body jerked madly, and he scrambled to his feet as if the floor had turned white hot. Troblum didn't like to dwell on that idea.

'Do it, you almighty shit, Stubsy cried at Troblum. 'Kill us all. Kill her:

'Tut tut, said the Cat. 'Is that gratitude?

Stubsy's mouth slammed shut. A trickle of blood dribbled down from the corner of his lip.

'Simonie, you stay here, the Cat instructed as she walked out of the chamber. Stubsy Florae hobbled after her, throwing one last desolate glance at Troblum. Simonie stood in the doorway as the malmetal contracted shut, framing her with a dark circle.

'I'm sorry, Troblum told her. She didn't say anything, though he could see her jaw muscles working silently.

The Cat must be remote controlling her, he guessed, which didn't leave him much time. Then he noticed the way her eyes kept switching from him to Alcinda's body. The vile grey growth had covered her flesh completely; now it was starting to spread across the floor, sending out fronds that moved like a spilled liquid.

Troblum activated his integral force field again, and hurried across the chamber until he came to the longest case in his collection. He was sure he heard some kind of bang from outside, maybe more than one but the door was an effective seal, and he didn't want to turn off his force field again. Paula must have arrived at the villa itself.

He had to use biononic reinforcement for his muscles so that he could lift the elongated cylinder out of its cradle mountings. The weapon was incredibly heavy, but then designers of the old Moscow-class warships didn't have to worry about mass. He just managed to lever it vertical, feeling like some pre-history knight hoisting up a lance. The cylinder's tip was barely a couple of centimetres from the cavern roof, wavering as he fought to keep it steady. There was no guarantee its ancient components would hold together if he switched it on; nor was he convinced his integral force field would withstand either a malfunction explosion or a successful discharge. But the Cat had eliminated certainty from his life, he was flying on logic and fatality now.

He looked directly at Simonie, whose right eyelid flickered. For the second time in a day Troblum didn't need a program to interpret a human emotion. He nodded back, and fired the ship-to-ship neutron laser.

* * * * *

For Paula it really hadn't been difficult to discover who was Troblum's ally on Sholapur. Troblum's clandestine money transfers had been subject to forensic accounting by an office at the Commonwealth Senate Treasury ever since Justine reported on his strangely empty hangar at Daroca spaceport. The Treasury office had quickly determined that Stubsy Florae's accounts had been the beneficiary of a great deal of money over the years, and ANA Security had accumulated a large file on the dealer's activities. An irritant rather than any kind of threat, Florae moved objects around the Commonwealth, which he had no legal right to do. The majority were basically harmless like Troblum's War relics, though he did supply weapons to agitator groups. As far as ANA knew he didn't involve himself with any Factions or their agents. Despite what he liked to imagine, Stubsy was very small-time in relation to the real political and economic subversives operating on the edges of Commonwealth society.

So she arrived in her ship, the Alexis Denken, a day before the agreed meeting. Descended through the atmosphere in stealth mode at night, easily evading the sensor sweeps run by Ikeo's defence system, and sank under the water twenty miles away from Florae's villa. When she arrived just offshore, she was interested to find the wreckage of a high-performance glide-boat resting on the sand close to Florae's charming white-sand beach. An examination by sensorbots showed it had been cut apart by a disruptor pulse. Paula guessed that she wasn't the only one who wanted to meet the elusive Troblum. It would be difficult for a Faction to intercept calls to ANA: Governance security, but hardly impossible. And Troblum had promised to divulge what he considered important activity concerning the Accelerators. Ilanthe would inevitably send a representative to intercept him. Possibly even Marius himself. Paula would enjoy arresting him, though he would probably self-destruct before he allowed any such humiliating indignity to prevail.

Five small passive sensor remotes slipped out of the sea to take up position on various high points around the estate, and she settled down to wait. Her piano slid out of its padded storage alcove; three hundred years old, made out of fiwood that glimmered with a soft red-brown sheen in the cabin's subdued lighting. The instrument had been handcrafted in a workshop on Lothian by a Higher artisan who'd taken a hundred and fifty years to perfect his craft, exceeding even the quality of Earth's legendary piano makers. Paula had commissioned it new, and the lush sound was well worth the ninety-year waiting list.

She sat at the velvet stool, pulled the sheet music out, and once again tried to play 'Für Elise'. Her trouble was the lack of practice time. It would be all too easy to use a music program linked with a dexterity function. But Paula wanted to be able to play the piece properly. A piano as beautiful as this one deserved that level of respect and commitment. Fingers ruled by a program would be no better than simply playing a recording.

Curious native fish nosing round the unusual ovoid resting on the sandy seabed were subjected to the ancient melody repeated dozens of times, interrupted, and begun again with relentless determination.

A day later, when she was playing with a lot more confidence, Paula had to admit Troblum's ship was extremely well shielded. She was caught off guard by the large figure in a shabby old toga suit riding a small scooter out of the forest on the far side of the Florae estate. None of her sensors had caught the Mellanie's Redemption coming down out of orbit. Her fingers hung motionless above keys of vat-grown ivory as she waited to see what would happen.

The scooter stopped just outside the estate boundary posts. It wobbled oddly as Troblum opened a link to Florae. Then the perimeter disarmed, and Troblum flew on unsteadily to the villa.

Soon after he arrived at the front door and went inside, a force field came on over the villa. The leading edge of the monsoon had arrived.

Troblum called ANA: Governance security division who relayed the call to Paula. Her remote sensors couldn't quite get close enough to the villa boundary to give her a clear image of him standing beside the pool, but she could certainly see the line of exotic yellow and green flowering plants that hedged in the one open side of the pool area as she talked to him. She didn't lie. She would definitely be at the villa within two hours.

Paula told the smartcore to retract the piano back into its alcove, climbed into her armour, activated three of the combat-bots stowed in the starship's forward hold, and stepped out through the airlock. The suit's regrav lifted her straight to the surface, emerging into driving rain as the heavy storm clouds raced overhead. She flew in a low fast curve to the top of the cliff above the white beach, landing beside one of the estate boundary's silver pillars. The three combatbots hovered protectively overhead, difficult to detect in the deluge. Lightning flashed constantly. Sensors locked on to her, and the villa's smartcore demanded she identify herself.

'You are expecting me. I am Paula Myo, an ANA representative on official business. Let me in now.

There was no reply. The boundary posts remained active, so she used a proton laser to kill the eight nearest to her. Her suit flew her towards the villa, keeping five metres above the ground. Ahead of her, the force field was hardening. She curved around until she was facing the open end of the three sided building. Water rippled down the force field, blurring direct visual observation. However, she saw three Amazon-like women in bikinis hurrying round the pool to take up positions behind the waterfall boulders. The small intelligence file on Florae had mentioned the kind of bodyguards he favoured.

'Oh, come on, she muttered. They weren't even wearing armour. Stupid amateurs.

Their formation was a standard one, protecting access to the centre of the villa. Paula guessed that would be where their boss was cowering, along with Troblum.

Two of the combatbots dropped a flock of energy-dumps onto the top of the villa's force field dome. The small dark spheres skidded and slithered down the curve. Bright energy flares whipped out around each contact point, and the dumps began to slow as if the dome had somehow become tacky. Lightning flashed out from the clouds overhead, attracted by the brawny spray of ions fizzing out from each dump to slam into the force field. The darkness surrounding the dumps began to expand and slowly sink through the force field that was now sparkling a dangerous stressed crimson.

Hot, steaming water began to seep through the force field to splatter the pool area. The villa's protective force field shone like a red dwarf sun that was being eaten by black cancers. Paula's full field function scan was burning its way through the faltering dome. She could make out several weapons enrichments powering up in the Amazon women. But there was no sign of Troblum.

'Where are you? she muttered. Another heavily enriched human was moving slowly inside the villa. Hard to pinpoint with the tormented force field still obstinately functional. Her field function still couldn't locate Troblum, he must be deeper inside, possibly underground.

Lightning lashed down again. The combatbots added three proton laser strikes to the impact. It was too much. The force field collapsed in a devastating sonic Shockwave that ripped the pool plants to shreds, sending a plume of smouldering leaves cascading up into the sodden sky. Windows burst apart, flinging long shards of glass across the paving slabs.

Paula swooped into the pool area as the downpour saturated the villa. The Amazon women fired a barrage of x-ray lasers and disruptor pulses at her. Jelly gun shots slashed harmlessly across her armour's force field. She was puzzled by that. Surely Stubsy or whoever had blown apart the glide boat had stronger weapons that this?

'Deactivate your enrichments right now, Paula commanded. The combatbots streaked through the deluge towards the women. Two of them fired at the hulking bots as they withdrew back into the villa. Paula pushed a disruptor pulse into one of the waterfall boulders just as the one in the bright green bikini left it to scamper through a ruined patio door. The boulder detonated into thousands of fragments which embedded themselves in the villa walls. 'Halt, she yelled. But the women scattered inside what she took to be a long lounge. Again they were in a defensive formation. 'Troblum, come out, I'm here at your invitation for heaven's sake.

Another fusillade of energy shots hammered into her force field. Dazzling purple static webs roared out from the impact points, vaporizing the rain pouring down her shoulders. Paula sighed, it was going to be difficult to neutralize the stupid women without damaging them. Her field function swept through the villa. The enriched person she'd spotted before was creeping along the back of the room the women were protecting. She still couldn't locate Troblum.

'Enough of this, Paula decided. The armour's regrav lifted her off the ground, starting to power her forward. She fired a disruptor pulse, blasting apart the wall in front of her and half of the roof above, opening up the lounge. A cascade of debris came tumbling down along with the rain. The women dived for cover, immediately reorganizing their fire pattern.

The sensor remotes outside the villa reported something approaching the estate through the torrent of rain. A large craft, keeping very low, flying the same route as Troblum's scooter out of the forest. His starship. Paula slowed abruptly, uncertain of the ship's ability.

In front of her, yellow and purple petals of exotic energy erupted from the floor of the lounge. Eight of them, curving up like the jaws of some vicious predator. They swept past barely a metre from her armour, clashing together to form a broad column. It began to twist, the petals separating out again, stretching out towards her, elongating fast.

Paula's suit regrav shoved at her violently, pushing her backwards as she gasped in shock. She and the three combatbots unleashed a torrent of firepower at the base of the exotic energy manifestation. Trying to kill the generator. The tip of exotic energy stroked the front of her armour's force field. Weird warning symbols erupted across her exovision.

The ground exploded upwards.

Paula was flung high into the air above the villa, spinning out of control. For a second she thought she'd punctured the exotic energy generator. But the yellow spectres were still leaping around like flames in a hurricane. They lasted for a second before snuffing out.

Paula stabilized her tumbling flight fifty metres above the villa. When her sensors swept the scene below, she saw a huge crater had completely ruptured one side of the building. It was twenty metres wide, with walls of raw smouldering earth. The bottom was open, leading into some underground space. Twisted metallic wreckage lay everywhere.

'Get here now, Paula ordered the Alexis Denken. She directed the three combatbots to attack the coordinate of the exotic energy generator. A lethal barrage of disruptor pulses and proton lasers lashed down, illuminating the broken villa with an incandescent nimbus far brighter than the lightning flaring overhead.

Paula was dropping fast now, anxious to escape any possible contact with the exotic energy. She'd been lucky before, but that generator was quite capable of caging her, suit and all. Someone was scrambling up out of the crater. Her field scan showed her a large person. Higher, with an integral force field that was barely functional.

'Troblum, she broadcast.

He stumbled to a halt at the top of the crater. Head swinging round as if he were drunk.

The Alexis Denken broke surface and accelerated hard. Ten combatbots shot out of its forward hold to add their protective cover. And another craft was suddenly streaking in towards the villa at mach nine, slicing round the low surrounding hills in a cacophony of brutalized air.

Paula touched down on a patch of muddy soil that minutes before had been a pleasant herbaceous border. The first starship had reached the crater, its profile a classic rocketship cone with eight radial forward-swept tailfins. Its nose dipped down towards Troblum, an airlock irising open.

'Stop, Paula told him. Then her field function showed her another figure emerging out of the ground into the ruins of Florae's villa. This one was glowing white, completely impervious to any field scan. Paula instinctively ignored Troblum, knowing she was now confronting the real threat. They faced each other across the steaming remains of the swimming pool.

The Alexis Denken came thundering through the monsoon surrounded by its entourage of combatbots. It halted behind Paula, hovering a couple of metres off the ground, and extended its force field to envelop her. Enough firepower to vaporize a medium-sized city focused on the lambent figure standing calmly inside the shattered walls. Troblum vanished inside his starship's airlock, and the craft swung through ninety degrees to point at the storm clouds. Then the third starship arrived. Paula expected it to fire on Troblum's ship. But instead it took up position behind the white figure, mirroring Paula and the Alexis Denken. Troblum's ship accelerated upwards at twenty-five gees. The Alexis Denken reported a great deal of powerful weapon systems in the interloper's starship were powered up.

'Marius, is that you? Paula asked.

The white figure pointed. Somehow Stubsy Florae had survived the carnage. He was crawling over the smashed wooden floorboards, blood seeping from dozens of lacerations.

'Damn it, Paula hissed. If she slugged it out with her opponent the outcome was uncertain. ANA had equipped her well, but the Faction whose representative she was obviously facing had a pretty formidable arsenal, too. If she won, she'd never know who was challenging her, and through her ANA, so brazenly. There would be nothing left of the vanquished except a dispersing ion swarm. And whoever won, it would mean the certain bodyloss of Stubsy Florae, and probably his death. There might even be more survivors hidden in the villa's wreckage; he did have several of the stupid Amazon bodyguards. Despite all the traits and qualities she had cast off over the centuries, her certainty of right and wrong remained absolute. She, Paula Myo, did not have the right to put civilians in danger, even civilians as repugnant as Florae. Her place in the universe was to uphold the law. However inconvenient Florae was at this moment, she could not risk allowing him to come in harm's way.

In any case, Florae would be a valuable witness. An opponent such as a Faction was best dealt with by ANA, not herself and a representative clashing in this fashion.

She stood still, staring at the cold glowing figure on the other side of the pool. Her field scan probed at the lustrous force field, but couldn't find a single flaw. One thing: it wasn't Marius — too short.

The white figure was drawn up into its starship. A hand was raised in a mocking wave. A silly wiggle of the hips and then the airlock closed, cutting off the shining aurora. The starship slid smoothly into the storm clouds, creating a dark whorl as it vanished into the stratosphere. Paula used the sensors on the Alexis Denken to track it as far as possible. The stealth effect came on when it was clear of the ionosphere. There was a minute quantum signature which the smartcore could just detect as it accelerated high above the equator, then it must have dropped into hyperspace. The finest sensors ANA could devise picked up a tiny disturbance among the quantum fields which indicated an ultradrive. Then there was nothing.

Paula put her lips together and whistled a long single note. The combatbots hovering above the villa showed her Stubsy Florae writhing in agony on his decimated wooden flooring. She hurried over in time to see strange grey growths blooming from his mouth and nose.

Her u-shadow opened a link directly to his microcellular clusters. 'Florae? Can you receive this?

The furry grey substance was emerging from his eyes.

'Who was it, Florae? Do you know who did this?

The only reply that came down the link was a burst of white noise.

'Okay, I'm getting you into a medical chamber. My ship has the best in the Commonwealth. You'll be fine. She picked him up and flew straight into the airlock, ordering the smartcore to initiate level one decontamination procedures. She really didn't like the look of the grey fungal stuff.

'Hang on in there, Florae, you'll be okay. You stay with me, understand?

It only took her a few seconds to get to the cabin, but he was convulsing by the time she lowered him into the coffin-sized medical chamber. The steel-sheen malmetal top closed fluidly over him.

A scan revealed that the grey substance had invaded his entire body, consuming and corrupting every organ. It had twined itself round his nerves, not damaging them, but embracing them. Paula watched the read outs in disgust and dismay as the intruder fed a continuous stream of impulses into every nerve fibre in Florae's body. Fronds inside his brain stimulated selected neural pathways to ensure his consciousness remained intact.

There wasn't enough of his original flesh left for the medical chamber to sustain. As Paula watched, Florae died in as much agony as it was possible for a human nervous system to conduct.

'Extract his memorycell, she ordered the medical chamber. But even that wasn't possible, the grey fronds had gnawed away at the memorycell, breaking it apart. She reviewed the read outs with growing alarm. The grey stuff seemed to be some kind of biononic viral, capable of breaking down both organic and inorganic compounds. It was already seeping into the instruments and manipulators interfaced with Florae's body, transforming them into more of itself, an effect inching into the casing of the medical chamber.

'Hell! she grunted. The Alexis Denken shot out of the atmosphere to an altitude of five thousand kilometres, then ejected the entire medical chamber. It tumbled away from the starship, sunlight glinting off its bright metal and plastic surfaces. Paula swept a powerful gamma-ray laser through it several times, making sure every molecule of the viral was disassociated; then finished it off with a single disruptor pulse. The now white-hot slag of the medical chamber burst apart in a sparkling swam of effervescence.

Several ground-based sensor systems locked on to the Alexis Denken. The smartcore received identification demands from every city on the planet. Paula simply ignored them, and flew back down to the villa gain.

The combatbots were circling overhead as the monsoon continued to soak the rubble. Long rivulets gurgled along the cracked paving, thick with scum and powdery mud. Paula's armour boots splashed through them as she made her way cautiously to the crater. The torn earth walls were mildly radioactive. Spybots swooped down to scan the remnants of the underground chamber. The first thing they detected amidst all the charred plastic and warped metal was the burned body. It appeared to be another of Florae's bodyguards. Then they picked up the signature of the grey substance. There was a patch clinging to a chunk of fractured rock. Its edges rippled as it sought to grow.

'Damnit, Paula swore. There was nothing for it. She called two of the combatbots down, and began a systematic sterilization of the site using gamma-lasers. That was when she called ANA. 'Things are getting a little crazy out here, she confessed.

'The Accelerators must be desperate to keep Troblum silenced.

'No. That's not what happened here. Paula was standing in the remnants of the lounge, using her field scan on the broken fragments of the exotic matter generator. There wasn't much left, and she was fairly certain her own firepower hadn't been wholly responsible. It had self-destructed at some point during the fight. 'Whoever was here could have eliminated him the second he turned up. They didn't. They wanted to use him as bait for me. This exotic matter system was intended to capture me. It's an extremely elaborate trap. Someone went to a lot of trouble. I got lucky Troblum's ship arrived when it did, another second and I'd would have been engulfed.

'You have acquired a great many enemies over the years.

'Yes, but this one has the backing of a Faction. They had an ultradrive ship effectively equal to the Alexis Denken, they had this revolting viral, and they knew I was coming to meet with Troblum. Logically, they must be allied with the Accelerators, yet they didn't eliminate Troblum. Who would the Accelerators possibly turn to at this point, who then wouldn't do what they needed most and silence Troblum? It's not logical. This person certainly doesn't seem to have any moral qualms about killing anyone. And I was obviously intended for the torture chamber, or some variant. Even as she said it, a really bad feeling was growing in her mind. She remembered that ridiculous wiggle which the glowing white figure had performed as it ascended into the starship. There was certainly one person who would fit the bill — but that wasn't possible. She was very definitely in suspension, and had been for over nine hundred years. Of course, if anyone had the ability to break her out, it would be a Faction… 'They wouldn't dare, she whispered. But the Accelerators were becoming increasingly arrogant. And they had been planning their moves for decades.

'What do you intend next? ANA asked.

Paula stared round at the rain-sodden area as the lightning flickered again. 'I need a full forensic examination here. It's a long shot, but if there's anything that will tell us where the exotic matter cage was built and by whom, I need to know.

'I will dispatch a team immediately.

'Thank you. I'm going to investigate Troblum a little closer. I need to work out where he's gone. There's nothing else I can do until Oscar snags the Second Dreamer for us.

'As you wish.

Paula looked up into the wild clouds, wishing she could see the stars. 'Any change on the devourment phase?

'Not yet.

'Will you be able to survive it?

'I don't know. What will you do?

'Ultimately? If it can't be stopped. I'm not sure. The High Angel will take me to another galaxy if I want. But right now we need to prevent our dear species from making things any worse.

* * * * *

Araminta didn't sleep the whole night long. How could she?

No, she'd said.

No to the Skylord. No to the entity that was offering to guide a goodly portion of humanity to what they regarded as their nirvana.

No. Said because: I'm the Second Dreamer.

It's me. Mel

Oh, Ozzie, please help me. This simply cannot be.

Me, she kept turning that over and over. How could it be me? Because of some distant ancestor she'd never even heard of until the other day, this Mellanie and her friendship with the Silfen. All that, all those unknowns from centuries ago had come pressing down on her, had taken away her destiny, her self-determination. Fate had chosen her.

Me!

And now the million, the billions, of Living Dream followers would look to her to help them join with the Skylord. And she'd said no.

The Skylord had been surprised. Shocked, even. She'd felt that wounded astonishment linger as she withdrew her mind from contact. That wasn't an answer which fitted its reality. She might just have well said no to gravity for all the sense it made.

What she'd done terrified her. But it was instinctive. She didn't want to be the Second Dreamer. Just hours before the contact she'd decided her future after days of soul-searching and self-discovery. She was going to be Mrs Bovey(s). She was going to get herself more bodies and become multiple. And they'd live here in this grand house, or a new one she'd build, equally delightful. And half of their bodies would be in bed together the whole time. She would make him as happy as he made her. And the future would be bright and lovely and full of promise. There might be children. What kind of children did multiples have? Did he want them? They'd never talked about any of this yet. So much was waiting for her out there in the years to come, so many discoveries. So much joy.

Of course she'd said no. What else could she say?

I will not be a part of that. That is not me.

Billions wanted it to be. They were going to insist.

But they will never know who I am. I will never talk to the Skylord again.

That was the decision she'd made when dawn came to the sky outside the bedroom. She was wretchedly tired, and shaking. There were dried tears on her cheeks from the quiet sobbing in the lonely hours as gentle rain had pattered against the window. But she knew her mind now. She would stand firm.

On the big bed beside her the blond teenage Mr Bovey lay on his back with a slight frown, mouth twitching as he dealt with a sour dream.

Nothing as bad as mine, she told him silently. He too would never know, she decided, the burden would be too much. This will end. Eventually. I will endure and ride it out.

Araminta bent over and kissed the youthful body. Gently at first. On his brow. His cheek. His mouth.

He stirred. The frown eased away. She smiled at that, and kissed his throat. Her hands caressed the supple muscle on his chest as the melange program rose out of her lacunas. Her raging thoughts stilled as she breathed slowly and carefully, following her own deep rhythms to achieve the composure she sought. Now she could concentrate fully on the body beside her.

For the full hour which followed there were no distractions, no external thoughts and doubts. It was so good to forget Skylords and Second Dreamers and Living Dream, replacing them with good dirty human sex.

* * * * *

'Forgive me, especially after this morning, but you don't look so good, Mr Bovey said.

Araminta nodded grudgingly as she finally climbed out of the big bath. It was such a luxury just lounging in oiled, scented water rather than snatching a quick minute in a spoor shower. One her poor body deserved. 'Your fault, she teased. She couldn't quite put the right emphasis behind it. Her thoughts were drifting back to the revelations of last night with the surety of a tide.

It was the young Celtic one who handed her a huge towel. 'Are you all right? You're not having second thoughts?

'Ozzie no! This is the only truly good decision I've made. Probably ever.

He smiled proudly, but couldn't completely hide his worry. 'You seem… troubled. I'm concerned.

She started to rub the water off her legs. Its been a big week.

I'm all right, just didn't sleep well, that's all. I'll take some kind of pep infuser when I get home.

'Home? ' he frowned.

'I've still got to get the apartments finished. We both know I need the money.

'Right. He scratched at his hair, looking perplexed. Araminta wasn't used to that. Whenever they had serious conversations Mr Bovey always preferred to use his middle-aged black-skinned body, the one she'd had their very first date with, who almost qualified as the father figure. She never had worked out if that was deliberate on his part.

'Look, he said. 'I hate to be the one with the bad news, but you clearly haven't accessed the Unisphere this morning.

Just the way he said it made her heart sink. She had told her u-shadow to suspend any Unisphere contact before they went to bed last night; now it reconnected her and began pulling out priority news items. 'Oh, Great Ozzie, she gasped. It was all there. The invasion by Ellezelin forces down by the docks. Paramilitary troops moving across the city. Large capsules patrolling the skies, halting any civilian traffic.

When she rushed over to the window she could make out several of the capsules floating passively above the River Cairns, insidious dark ovoids set against the dusky dawn-lit clouds. Colwyn's weather-protection force field was on, covering the entire city. It wasn't any storm the invaders were interested in, they were preventing any capsules from leaving.

And worse, much much worse, the message from Director Trachtenberg at Centurion Station about the Void starting to expand. A devourment phase all the commentators were calling it. And they were equally clear that it was the fault of the Second Dreamer for rejecting the Skylord. No such thing as coincidence was the phrase that kept reverberating round her head. Everyone was using it.

'I can't stay here, Araminta moaned.

'You're not serious? It's dangerous out there. They're restricting the reports, but our fellow citizens are not taking this lightly. There's been several clashes already, and it's not even breakfast time yet.

They're here for me, she realized. A whole world invaded, violated because of me. Ozzie, forgive me.

'I'll just go straight home, she said stubbornly. 'I have to get to the apartments. They're all I've got, you can see that, can't you? She felt shabby saying that, it was emotional bullying, but all she wanted to do was get away from him. It was completely wrong, this was the person she was planning to marry, hes should be trusted. She just couldn't risk trusting him with something of this magnitude. He'd agreed to marry a girl struggling to make it as a property developer, not some walking galactic catastrophe.

'I do understand, he said, so very reluctantly. 'But they've shut down all the capsule traffic. Half of mes are stuck all across town.

Araminta started to pull her clothes on. There was a whole closet in the bathroom which was hers, so at least she could dress practically with dark jeans and a blue sweater. 'My trike pod is in the garage. I left it here a couple of weeks back. Her u-shadow was hurriedly checking travel restrictions in Colwyn City. The traffic management net carried a full proscription on non-official air vehicles, backed by the certificate of the Mayor's office and the Viotia Federal Transport Agency. However, ground vehicles were still permitted to operate in the city precincts, with an advisory caution that citizens should only use them for essential trips. There were a great many links to official Viotia government bulletins about their inclusion in the Free Trade Zone at core planet level, and how after a brief transition period everything would return to normal and a strong economic growth phase would begin, bringing a major upswing to everyone's lifestyle. Just for an instant she recalled Liken and his grand plans for the Free Trade Zone, but she dismissed those thoughts at once.

'Let some of mes go, Mr Bovey said. 'I can check the place over for you.

'I am not going to start our life together by being dependent on you, she said, hating herself now.

He looked even more unhappy. 'All right. Ozzie, but you're obdurate.

'Think of it as tenacious, and how that works in your favour in bed.

'Ozzie help the paramilitaries if they get in your way. But his sympathetic smile wasn't exactly wholehearted. 'I don't suppose one of mes can come with you?

'Have you got a ground vehicle? she asked.

'No.

'You're really sweet. Still want to marry me?

'Yes.

'Even when there's going to be many mes?

'Just take care.

There was a whole team of hims assembled to wave goodbye to her when she clambered on to the trike pod. She was mildly surprised to find the power cell still had half a charge left. All his familiar faces wore the same mournful expression as she waved airily. Then she set off down the narrow gravel track which cut through the grounds to the road outside. There was a point when she'd just passed the last of hims when she thought her resolution might buckle and send her rushing back, confessing everything. It was coupled with a horror that she'd never see him again, that no matter her determination this was all too big for her to cope with.

If that's so, then I can't drag him down into it.

So she kept the trike steady and true, riding across the garden that retained its light coating of glistening moisture from last night's rain. The old iron gate at the end of the track creaked as its actuators swung it open for her. Then she was out on the empty road lined with tall lackfol trees whose reddish-green loaves were chittering in the gentle breeze that stirred under the city's force field dome.

The worst part of the trip was riding over the big single-arch bridge to the northern bank. She felt horribly exposed to the big capsules that slid through the air on either side of the bridge. It was so strange seeing the city without its normal capsule traffic zipping about, as if the metropolis was injured somehow. People on the bridge seemed to share the feeling. Many citizens had decided to walk to work, showing their defiance through an obstinate insistence on pursuing their normal day as best they could. Public cabs still hummed along the central rails, packed tight with commuters. And she'd never known so many people actually had trike pods; a great many of them clearly hadn't been outside their garages for years.

As she cleared the apex of the long bridge, Araminta allowed herself to dip into the local gaiafield, receiving the strident emotions of her fellow residents, the determination and anger they radiated and supported each other with. It was a buoyant kinship; though she didn't dare allow any of her own feelings to trickle out. She was all too conscious of people like Danal delving into the confluence nests, trying to locate any hint of her thoughts, her location, her identity. And how was that for irony, one of her hunters buying an apartment from her, actually living next door to his prey, neither of them knowing. She wondered if he'd be able to scent the guilt on her.

Ahead of her she could see three capsules hovering over the far end of the bridge. Dozens of the suited paramilitaries were clustered there, examining everyone coming over. She almost turned around there and then, but that would draw attention to her. And they'd be watching the whole bridge for such a reaction, she was sure of that. So she pressed on, wondering what that ancestor Mellanie would do: she who'd bequeathed so much trouble into Araminta's easy life. Was she some kind of tough government agent, a War hero; why was she a Silfen friend? Araminta promised herself that when she got back to the apartments the first thing she'd do was look up the woman whose fault this all was.

The paramilitaries were simply standing waiting in intimidating ranks, holding long rifles across their chests as everyone from the bridge walked or drove past them. The Unisphere nodes at the end of the bridge were querying u-shadows. Araminta sent her identity certificate, looking nervously at the bulky figures, wondering what their faces looked like. They were sharing nothing with the gaiafield, which was strange for anyone affiliated with Living Dream must surely have gaiamotes. Were they nervous? They must know an entire planet hated them.

Whatever smartcore the Living Dream forces were using to try and identify the Second Dreamer didn't seem unduly interested in Araminta. None of the paramilitaries showed any interest in her as the trike trundled past them. Just on the other side, a group of local youths was gathering. Shouts echoed through the damp air, directed at the paramilitaries. Several marques of construction site bot waddled and rolled towards the dark ranks, waving power tools threateningly and leaking miscreant programs that blocked and distorted the cybersphere nodes.

By the time she was a hundred metres along Gathano Avenue past the bridge, the paramilitary squad commander finally took action against the taunts and belligerent bots. The shouting increased in volume and anger, interspaced with the unpleasant high-pitched humm of energy weapons directed at the bots. Araminta increased her speed as a pair of capsules swept overhead to reinforce their colleagues. The last thing she could afford now was to be taken into custody.

By the time she reached her apartments in the Bodant district forty minutes later the number of people milling round in the park outside was disturbing. She knew she was being prejudiced, but most of them looked like the kind of gang members which the Unisphere news always claimed had a stranglehold on the neighbouring Helie district. When she allowed their gaiafield emissions to register, she found an atmosphere of dark resentment swirling across the park, more frightening than the anger of the commuters. There was purpose here. Violence wasn't far away.

She steered the trike down into the underground garage, thankful for the dual gate security; then took the lift up. When the doors opened on the fourth floor Araminta prayed that Danal and Mareble were either out or wouldn't hear her crossing the vestibule — how good had she made the sound proofing? The Living Dream followers had only moved in two days ago, declaring they could no longer wait until the official completion date, which left her with a load of work to finish for them before the full price was deposited in her account. Not today!

The door of the apartment she was using closed behind her and she pressed her back up against it, as if reinforcing the charming old-fashioned brass lock. Breath hissed out of her in a sorrowful gasp, and she slowly slid down onto the parquet floor.

I can just stay here. I don't need to go out. I can get nutrient fluid for the culinary unit pumped in. I can work on getting the last two apartments finished. By the time that's done all this will have blown over.

Except for the Void expansion phase. But the Raiel will fight that, that's what the Unisphere shows say.

It was a pitiful delusion, she knew.

Maybe thirty minutes later Cressida called. Just seeing her icon appear cheered Araminta up no end. If anyone knew what to do it would be Cressida. And maybe, just maybe, she could tell her cousin about being the Second Dreamer.

'Darling, how are you? Where are you?

'I'm okay, thanks, I'm at the apartments.

'Oh. I thought you were with Mr Bovey.

'I was. I came home this morning.

'You crossed the city yourself?

'Yes. It wasn't any trouble. I used my trike pod.

'Dear Ozzie, that was stupid, darling. You're not to do anything like that again, do you understand. I mean it. Life is about to get very ugly here. I've been talking with my contacts in City Hall and the state government house. These Living Dream bastards are not going to go home. Viotia has been royally screwed by our crap-for-brains Prime Minister.

'Yes. I know, she said weakly.

'And the worst place for anyone to be right now is Colwyn City. They think that dickhead the Second Dreamer is living here. And there's no way he'll escape. They've broken just about every single article of the Commonwealth constitution by invading us, they're not going to stop now. Do you know who've they've sent to oversee the search?

'No.

'Well don't tell anyone, but Cleric Phelim himself has come through the wormhole to take charge.

'Who's that?

'Oh, darling, keep up! He's Ethan's chief of staff, the enforcer himself. A greater turd you will not meet, and I include your old chum Likan in that list.

'Oh, great Ozzie, Araminta drew her knees up to her chin and hugged her legs tight.

'Sorry, darling, didn't mean to worry you excessively. We'll be all right, of course. Which is actually why I'm calling. There's a way out, if you're interested.

'What way out? The weather dome is on, no one can get out.

'Ha, that just deters capsules. After all the damn thing is only there to protect us from clouds and wind, not ward off Ocisen Empire warships or the Void boundary. There's actually a big gap, well twenty metres anyway, between the lower edge of the dome and the ground to allow normal air flow. We'd all suffocate in a week without that.

'So we can get through?

'We can just walk out until they seal that up with their troops, yes. Even then there are various tunnels available if you know the right people. My u-shadow will send the files over for you. Anyway, the point is: some friends and I are chartering a starship. We're leaving completely, not just Colwyn but Viotia itself. There's a seat on it for you if you want, I'm holding it as part of our family's block booking.

'Urn… but Mr Bovey?

'Darling, you'd need five starships to get all of hims off. Be realistic. And be sensible. In times like this you have to think about your own arse.

'But they're not letting anyone out of the city, let alone offplanet.

'You leave that to us. Anybody who believes Living Dream is some kind of irresistible force has clearly forgotten about lawyers. We're chartering a foreign-owned starship with full diplomatic status. If Phelim tries restricting that he'll find himself staring down a Commonwealth Navy warship disruptor cannon. Let's see who blinks first then.

'I see.

'So are you in or out?

'I… I don't know.

'There's one thing, darling, which I'm going to have to bring up. It won't be cheap. Where do you stand on selling the apartments?

'Oh. Not good. I still don't have deposits on the last two, and I haven't completed any of the others. Nobody's going to buy anything now.

'Yes, that is a problem. You didn't find that offload sucker like I told you then? Never mind. You should never underestimate the market when it comes to making things happen for a profit. Give it a day and there'll be venture groups on half the External worlds offering Viotia citizens cash for their business and properties; it'll be way below yesterday's market rate, but they'll be thinking long term. Once Living Dream grabs the Second Dreamer things will start to stabilize. Give it twenty years and everything will be back to normal, and those properties will be five times the value.

'If it's going to be normal again, why are you leaving?

'Normal for a Free Trade Zone hagiocracy planet, darling. Which I have no intention of spending the rest of my lives on, thank you very much. I want a nice liberal market-based democracy with all the opportunities for misunderstanding and conflict that entails. Wherever there's an argument you'll find us lawyers offering to help. And help equals lots of money. On which subject; I've already transferred my cash accounts offworld.

'Already?

'Certainly, darling; the banks were keen to welcome me. And I wasn't exactly the first. There's enough money flying offplanet right now to leave our beloved Prime Minister a magnificent economic nightmare by lunchtime, never mind tomorrow. The only thing she has left to worry about is how painful her bodyloss is going to be when her previously loyal voters get their hands on her. So — do you want me to see if I can offload your apartments for you? I have some finance seeker semisentients I can assign the problem to.

'Urn, yes. Yes, I suppose so.

'Great, so I'll reserve that ticket for you.

'Yes. Do that. Araminta just said it without thinking. She didn't want to leave, but Cressida had to be placated somehow, and anything else might be suspicious. Ozzie, it didn't take me long to become a paranoid schemer, did it?

'Don't worry, Cressida said. 'Ten days from now we'll be sipping cocktails on the pool terrace of La Cinal on Etinna. It'll be fun, a new beginning.

The call ended, and Araminta stared at the semi-decorated open-plan living room in a mild daze. She couldn't believe that even Cressida could abandon her whole life with such casual ease. But then that was Cressida for you, thinking faster and smarter than anyone else. She'd probably run through the whole shock, anger, assessment, calculation, and action stages in the first hour; while Araminta was still firmly mired in the shock segment. Certainly she'd never thought what life on Viotia would be like after things settled down; and of course Cressida was right, they would be part of the Free Trade Zone for ever now. Unless the Senate and Navy intervened, or Viotia's residents organized a rebellion.

Or the Void devours us.

Whatever the future outcome, Cressida was right about one thing, Araminta couldn't just wait around hoping to avoid detection. She started to think what it must cost politically and economically to invade a planet. Cleric Conservator Ethan and his sidekick Phelim wouldn't do that and then just hope they'd stumble across the Second Dreamer. They'd have a plan. And it would be a good one.

Araminta forced herself to get to her feet. She didn't know what she was going to do, but doing nothing was not an option.

* * * * *

It took two hours, and a stint in the ship's medical chamber, but Troblum eventually stopped shaking. When he emerged he could barely manage to cover the couple of metres from the chamber to his big chair. He sank into its padding, fearful he would start trembling again. The medical read out in his exovision showed him just how many drugs were coursing through his bloodstream right now, working in conjunction with his biononics to suppress his body's animal reactions. He had been terrified.

He was also rather surprised that he was still alive. All he could remember of the neutron laser shot was a dazzling flash, and a noise that was so great his bones had felt it rather than his ears. His biononics were still repairing his retinas and inner ears. How he staggered into the ship's airlock was some kind of miracle; the smartcore had to give him directions, telling him how to move every limb.

But he was alive, and almost intact. The smartcore had used sensors to follow the Cat's starship flying away from the villa, then vanishing. Her stealth systems were as good as his own if not better. He hadn't waited around to find out how good Paula's ship was, he'd simply stealthed up and dropped into hyperdrive. Now he was sitting in transdimensional suspension ten lightyears out from Sholapur.

'You were lucky, Catriona Saleeb said.

'I know. He glanced at the single item of his collection to survive. Mellanie Rescorai's handheld array lay on the decking where he'd dropped it. The foxory casing was blackened round the edges, the outline of his hand clearly visible. He closed his eyes and turned his head, making sure he was looking up at the ceiling before he opened his eyelids again. All of it, gone. The entire collection. Destroyed by his own hand. Every unique significant piece. It was as if history itself had been weakened.

'You won't be again, Trisha Halgarth said, twirling a strand of Catriona's hair round her index finger as she nestled up against her friend. 'I'm surprised the Cat didn't finish you off.

'I'm not, Catriona said. 'She's going to come after you, Troblum. She's going to catch you. And then you'll die. It'll probably take several years.

'Shut up! he yelled. 'Shut up. Support me.

'Okay, Catriona said, she cuddled Trisha. 'You're not safe as long as the Cat is around.

'And Paula didn't kill her off, Trisha said, sounding vaguely puzzled. 'So you've got two options left.

'Two? he queried.

'Go after her yourself, and finish the job.

'No! That's not an option. Only Paula can do that. She's still the only one I trust. I can't believe ANA is so compromised. That's got to be down to flaws in the Unisphere which a Faction can manipulate.

'Think on it, Catriona said earnestly. 'The Cat is allied with the Accelerators, they gave her everything she wanted, ship, weapons, the lot; and somehow she knew where you'd be. You can't trust ANA, not any more. I certainly don't, she added haughtily.

'It has to be the Unisphere, he said, more to himself than the girls. 'They intercepted my message.

'Which only makes your position worse, Trisha said. 'That leaves option two. Run! Run far and run fast. We've got to make it to another galaxy. Mellanie's Redemption can do it. You'll be safe there.

'What if Living Dream is right and the Void works for them? he asked. 'What if the Cat gets inside? What if she can manipulate it the way the Waterwalker did?

The girls exchanged a look. Both pouted. 'What are you thinking? Catriona asked.

'I should warn them, Troblum said. 'Paula at least. She understands about the Cat. Paula knows she has to be stopped. Paula wouldn't give up.

'So give her a call, and let's get out of here, Catriona said.

Troblum couldn't help it, his gaze had dropped to Mellanie's array again. 'My collection is gone because of her. The damage. Just thinking about it was threatening to send his body back into shock again. Medical read outs edged back towards amber alerts. 'It was all I ever had, Troblum wailed. He began to curl up, as much as he ever could, his belly squashing out across his upper legs. 'It took me centuries to collect them all. They were safe with me, I was their guardian. He was sobbing so hard the words were virtually unintelligible. 'They were so precious, so valuable. They helped make us what we are, they were a part of our evolution. Why did nobody ever understand how important they were?

'Troblum, Tricia crooned. 'Poor Troblum.

'There are other pieces, Catriona said. 'Remember you visited the Smithsonian, they actually let you touch the Charybdis, the curator was so impressed with your own preservation work. She knew you were an equal. You see, so much still remains. And its legacy is for ever.

'Not with her still alive, he muttered darkly. His hand came up to wipe the moisture from his eyes. 'She is the destroyer. She is death. She is the Void: her.

'Call Paula, Tricia said urgently. 'Do it.

'I have to know, he whispered. 'I have to know we're safe. That she's dead for good. I can't live thinking she might appear behind me. That she'll take me, and… And…

Catriona sighed. 'You can never know that.

'Yes I can. He pushed himself up out of the chair, and walked to the back of the cabin. A small doorway expanded, and he squeezed himself through. An equally small companionway let him through into the starboard midsection hold. There wasn't quite enough room for him to stand, he had to crouch, and hunch his shoulders up. No matter how he twisted, his worn toga suit always brushed against the stolen cargo. The little space was crammed with machinery, piled up at random like a cybernetic dragon hoard. One thousand three hundred and seventy-two components, Troblum recalled. He frowned, and picked up the first one. A hyperfield power manifold, a curving sliver of some substance that seemed to alternate between being crystal and metal. He knew what each component was, but there was no structure to the piles; everything had been shoved in at random as his commandeered bots had pilfered it from the Accelerator station's replicators.

So all he had to do was assemble it, start with the central units and slowly create the new machine in the correct sequence, then integrate it with the starship's existing hyperdrive, and he'd have a fully functional ultradrive ship, quite capable of flying to Andromeda, or beyond.

'Can you do it? Catriona asked. Her head was poking through the hatchway, a dubious expression in place.

'It'll work, Troblum said. 'In theory. He couldn't even see the central units.

'Then what?

'We'll have a genuine escape route. But I'm still going to contact Paula.

'Through the Unisphere?

'No. I'm too frightened of the Accelerators' capability. They were the ones who set the Cat on me. Next time it'll be Marius, or someone else who isn't going to be distracted by an old grudge.

'Then how are you going to get in touch?

Troblum picked up a carbon-black icosahedron, trying to index it. 'There is one other person left that I trust implicitly. He's connected to Paula, or at least he was back during the War. I'll tell him what I know about the Accelerators. He can carry the message to Paula. Maybe once ANA knows about the swarm it will stop the Accelerators. The Cat will be on her own then. That's when Paula can finish her.

'Who? Catriona asked. 'Who do you trust?

'Oscar the Martyr.

Inigo's Eighth Dream

Edeard awoke to the marvel of soft fingers caressing his abdomen. It was a lovely sensation matched to the warmth of the supple mattress, the touch of fresh cotton sheets, the fading blossom scent of Jessile's perfume. He smiled, his eyes still closed as he sighed a delighted welcome to the new day. A kiss fell on his cheek. Her nose nuzzled his ear. His smile widened, and the possessive hand slipped along his skin, past his belly button, and further yet. Jessile giggled.

'Now that's what I call rising to greet the dawn, she murmured lecherously.

The other girl giggled as well.

Edeard's eyes snapped open. Memories came flooding back. Just to confirm them, Kristiana was lying on his other side watching him and Jessile with covetous intent, her flimsy white negligee far too small to contain her full figure even if the lace bows down the front had been fastened. He recalled how enjoyable it had been undoing those bows last night.

A weak 'Haaaa, was all Edeard could manage.

'Me first, Jessile insisted, her sharp teeth emphasising the claim on his earlobe.

Kristiana produced a reproving pout. 'Don't forget me, Waterwalker.

Edeard couldn't answer. Jessile's kiss had now engulfed his month. He folded his arms around her as she slithered on top of him. The memories of last night gained texture, and he remembered her delight and exactly how to cause it. His hands moved in the way which made her shudder helplessly, then he applied his third hand just so.

For the last three weeks, as autumn embraced Makkathran, Edeard had learned how to harness his telekinetic ability in the bedroom to the best possible advantage. Another arena of life in which poor old Ashwell lagged far behind the sophisticated decadence of the city. But he hadn't lacked for girls eager to teach him the most intimate secrets of this darkest art. His fame and strength had proved irresistible to the beautiful mischievous daughters of the nobility. They relished demonstrating their ill-gotten skill, almost as much as he enjoyed being the beneficiary. He never was sure exactly who was corrupting who.

* * * * *

'I've never seen steps into a bathing pool before, Kristiana remarked as she walked down into the bubble-coated water. 'We have these awful wooden ladder things hanging on the side in all the pools in Great-grandfather's mansion. Her hand stroked Edeard's face as she sat on the seat shelf beside him. 'This is much better.

'There are quite a few pools in the constables' tenement that have steps like these, Edeard assured her, confident she wouldn't be going in any to find out.

'Not fair you've got them and we haven't, Jessile complained. She pouted. Jessile had a very pretty pout, Edeard decided. It certainly got her just about everything she wanted.

He relaxed between them, which spoke volumes about how his life had changed since that day in Birmingham Pool. On several evenings, there had been fights in the theatres over who got to bed him — such reputable girls, too. He'd never really considered what kind of life popularity would bring. And he had enough of his dour Ashwell upbringing left to convince himself it wouldn't last. But in the meantime…

At his instruction, a ge-chimp brought two sponges and a bottle of soap oil to the rim of the pool. 'Would you do my back? he asked, and leaned forward.

Both girls took a sponge. Even with shielded thoughts, they clearly didn't have cleanliness in mind as they began to apply the liquid with languid movements.

'What are you doing tonight? Jessile asked.

'Celebrating, I hope, Edeard told her. It was the last day of Arminel's trial; his verdict was a formality. At least Edeard sincerely hoped so, but then he'd thought that last time. That good old Ashwell optimism again. The trial was the biggest event in Makkathran, and had been for the last four days as the opposing lawyers presented their respective cases. Only the grandest of the city's aristocracy managed to get into the public gallery; everyone else relied on sight and sound gifting from the official court recorder. 'How about you?

'My fiance will be back from patrol this afternoon, she told him. 'Eustace is a lieutenant in the militia. Guarding our borders, she added with a large dollop of irony.

'Ah, Edeard said. He glanced at her left hand, seeing a slim silver band like twined vines. A single diamond was set in its crest.

She bent round to look at his expression. 'That doesn't bother you, does it? You're the Waterwalker.

'No. Not worried. He did wonder what kind of marriage it would be, a thought which must have shone through his shielding.

'I'm a third daughter, Jessile said with a kindly smile. 'We're marrying because after twenty-three years I'll finally get out of the family mansion; and he gets a dowry to live off. Poor boy's a fifth son of the family Norrets' second son, which entitles him to a big slice of nothing. Daddy's promised me an estate in Walton province; they say it has a nice big house.

'That's why you're marrying?

'Of course. She paused the sponge on the top of his spine. 'I know I'm going to miss Makkathran, but I suppose I'll get used to country life. I'll visit the city every season.

'What about love? he asked.

Both girls smiled delightedly, letting wistful admiration flow free from behind their own veiled thoughts.

'You're so sweet, Jessile said. 'That's one of the things about you. I can sense it so easily. We all can. You're just endlessly fascinating. Is it true the first time the Pythia met you she said you'd be Mayor?

'What? No! She said no such thing. He struggled to remember what she had said.

'I'd like you to meet my friend Ranalee, Kristiana said. 'She's a Gilmorn, they're a merchant family. Horribly rich. She's a second daughter, very marriageable; and she's expressed, in complete confidence to me, how strongly she'd enjoy knowing you.

'Uh, right.

Kristiana stood up in front of him, wiping long damp hair from her shoulders with deliberate slow movements. 'She's pretty, too; and young, in case you were wondering. If I introduce you, we could all celebrate together tonight.

Edeard found himself short of breath.

* * * * *

Boyd was waiting outside Edeard's maisonette, wearing a long fur-lined coat over his smartest uniform. A slushy rain was dribbling out of an overcast sky, damping his hair. He started to say something, then stopped abruptly as Kristiana and Jessilo emerged just behind Edeard. The girls were swathed in long woollen wraps, as were currently fashionable. They just about covered up their expensive theatre dresses.

'Ladies, Edeard said courteously.

They both smiled demurely, and allowed him to kiss them on the cheek.

'Don't forget, Kristiana said. 'Tonight. Me and Ranalee.

Boyd watched in awe as the girls hurried along the walkway to the stairs. They were giggling after a few paces, arms linked, their heads leaning in together to not-quite-whisper.

'The Alrado theatre in Zelda district, Kristiana's longtalk shot at him.

'I'll be there, Edeard smiled happily at their departing backs.

'Two! Boyd exclaimed once the girls were clattering down the stairs.

Edeard knew his smile was now boastful. Didn't care.

'Lady! How do you do it. Step aside Macsen, the new king is on his throne.

'How was Saria? Edeard countered. 'Wasn't last night your fifth?

'Ninth, actually. Boyd's grin turned sinful. 'She's a Matran, you know, sixth daughter of their next District Master.

'Good for you, Edeard said. He still didn't really know his way around Makkathran's aristocracy; though he'd certainly met an awful lot of the younger members recently.

'She let slip she'd be acceptable to a proposal. Can you imagine that? Me, the son of a baker marrying into the Matrans!

'Is it so unusual?

Boyd slapped Edeard's back. 'Oh you country boy!

Edeard wondered what his friend would have to say on the subject of a second daughter in the Gilmorn family. Right from the beginning he'd thought the city's obsession with lineage and money to be unhealthy, as if such considerations were paramount. Of course, it might just be that Ranalee was a lovely person as well. Only one way to find out.

They made their way across the low bridge over the Outer circle canal and into the Majate district. Arminel's trial was being conducted in the central chamber of the Courts of Justice, the largest there was. Outside, the walls of the big ante hall were punctured by a series of deep arriere-voussure arches leading to the offices of the judiciary and their clerks. A lot of people in fine robes were already gathered there waiting when Edeard and Boyd arrived. Edeard respectfully acknowledged the looks cast in his direction as they made their way over to the cluster of constables around captain Ronark. He recognized several members of the Upper Council; Imilan the chemistry Guild's Grand Master, Dalceen, the District Master of Fiacre, Julan, District Master of Haxpen, and Finitan of course, who at least seemed genuinely welcoming with the sly grin he shot at Edeard.

'About time, Kanseen said as they joined the constables. 'We're about to go in. There was the faintest hint of suspicion leaking through her guarded mind. Edeard reckoned that was deliberate, she usually had a very strong shield. She never voiced any dismay at the success he was having with girls right now, but he knew it bothered her. In any case, he knew she'd had numerous invitations from various Grand Family sons; though that would more likely be a cause of annoyance for her.

'They wouldn't start without him, Macsen teased.

'I've given my testimony, Edeard said with a straight face. 'I don't really need to be here.

She pulled a face at him.

'And yet your ego delivered you here in time, Macsen said, equally innocently. 'How fortunate we all are.

'Any word on Dinlay? Edeard asked, ignoring Macsen's taunt. He was slightly disappointed their squadmate wasn't at the Courts of Justice. When they'd all visited Dinlay last, just a couple of days ago, the doctors had said he was almost ready to leave the hospital. It would be light duties only for another month or so, but the bullet wound was healing well.

'Bit much to expect him to be here as soon as he's out, Captain Ronark said. 'He'll probably start tomorrow.

'Yes, sir, Macsen said.

'Here we go, Sergeant Chae said.

Master Solarin from the Guild of Lawyers emerged from the nearest archway, assisted as always by a couple of ge-monkeys. After the debacle of Arminel's previous trial, Edeard had asked Captain Ronark if the district station could retain their old legal tutor as prosecuting council this time. To his surprise, the captain had agreed. But then as everyone in the whole city knew, this time Arminel and his cohorts were going to be found very very guilty. It was just that Edeard felt more comfortable with Solarin prosecuting. At least the ancient lawyer knew how to present a case, and wouldn't succumb to any procedural tricks employed by the defence.

'All waiting for me? Master Solarin said cheerfully. 'How very flattering. Come along then, let us do battle one last time.

The clerk of the court appeared at the big doors leading to the central chamber. 'The case of Makkathran versus Arminel, Gustape, Falor, Harri and Omasis is called to session, he announced loudly.

Master Solarin made his painfully slow way to the central chamber, with everyone else falling into place behind him, as tradition dictated.

Once again Master Cherix had been retained as Arminel's defence council. He followed the constables in, accompanied by two junior lawyers, seemingly unperturbed by the stature of the case.

'Wish I could afford him, Boyd whispered to Edeard and Kanseen as they made their way to their seats. 'In fact, if I ever do get arrested, I'm going to ask for him.

'When you get arrested, you mean, Kanseen smiled back.

Edeard grinned. But Boyd was right. Even with an open and shut case, Cherix had been flawless in his presentation, citing Edeard's provocation, the grudge between Arminel and Edeard, inflamed tension, the panic on the day; doing his best to mitigate the ultimate sentence.

'They had to have someone that good, Chae said as the squad settled in their benches. 'It's politics. The trial must be seen as fair.

When the central chamber was filled to capacity, the clerk trilled for silence, and the three judges walked in.

The day before the trial began, Solarin had told them that Owain, the Mayor himself, would take the role of chief judge of the proceedings. It was a very rare event for the Mayor to sit in court, even though his office was the head of the judiciary. Edeard somehow hadn't been surprised. Politics. Again. The city wanted to see the gang members punished. And there was an election in the spring. The nature of the case gave Owain the perfect justification to step in.

Owain and his two fellow judges called the court to order, and requested the closing statements from both councils.

Edeard listened with a growing sense of excitement, maybe even a sense of suspense. It was a foregone conclusion, Solarin's relentless speech made that perfectly clear, expertly demolishing the mitigating circumstances Cherix had so carefully built up. But even so, Cherix almost made Edeard feel sorry for Arminel, a life led astray through no fault of his own, dreadful childhood, abandoned by parents, fallen into crime because the city didn't care…

Surely they won't fall for this? As he looked at the faces of the judges, they were totally impassive, their minds perfectly shielded.

After the submissions, Owain announced a recess so the judges could consider their verdict. Edeard and the others found themselves back out in the ante hall again, trying not to let their feelings leak to everyone else.

Grand Master Finitan came over to talk to them. 'Any doubts about the outcome? he asked quietly. 'You seem subdued.

'No sir, Edeard said. 'But Cherix is good.

'He has to be. The Grand Council can't afford any accusation of bias.

'Politics.

'You are becoming a proper citizen of Makkathran, aren't you?

'I do my best, sir.

'I know. Finitan drew him away from the other constables. 'Then consider this; the offer you will be made after the case is over is not about ability, it is made to test you.

'Sir?

'If you accept, it will show you understand the city's politics, and indicate you play by the same rules as the rest of us. If you refuse, if you claim you're not worthy, or wish to demonstrate your humility before the Lady, or something along those lines, then you're telling everyone you're a dangerous idealist.

'Yes, sir, Edeard said blankly; he didn't have a clue what the Grand Master was talking about.

'You have my blessing either way. But it has to be your own choice. I would simply to ask you to consider what you can accomplish on the outside looking in. Think about it.

'I will sir.

Finitan patted Edeard on the shoulder, and went back to the group of Masters from the Grand Council.

'What was that about? Macsen asked.

'I haven't got the faintest idea.

* * * * *

The three judges took two hours to deliberate. When the court was recalled, Arminel and his four fellow accused were made to stand as Owain read out the findings.

On extortion all five accused were found guilty.

On conspiracy: guilty.

On the attempted murder of two constables, a charge levelled at Arminel alone, he was found guilty.

Arminel kept his face and mind composed the whole time. Edeard was expecting the man to at least glance in his direction, but his resolve never wavered.

Owain then put a square of scarlet drosilk on his head. Edeard finally saw Arminel tense up.

Gustape, Falor, Harri and Omasis were sentenced to twenty years in the Trampello mine. They were led away to the holding cells. Arminel stood alone, facing the three judges.

"The crimes you have been found guilty of are exceptional, Owain declared. 'I don't believe that I have ever encountered such deliberate wickedness in my time on the Grand Council. To compound this, you have constantly refused to cooperate with the constables and tell them the names of other members in your vile criminal organization. While this might earn you their gratitude, it does nothing to encourage leniency on my part. We have never had the death penalty on Querencia. For this you can thank the Lady, who in her wisdom believes that there is no human soul which cannot be redeemed. However, I see no sign that your salvation is possible. As a consequence I find myself with no alternative but to sentence you to incarceration in the Trampello mines for the remainder of your life. May the Lady bless your soul upon its ascent into the radiant heavens, for no one else will. He banged the gavel. 'This court is concluded.

* * * * *

The spectators filed out of the central chamber while Edeard and his squadmates sat on their benches in a mild daze.

'Wow, Macsen said.

'Life, Boyd said.

'That's just about unheard of, Kanseen said.

Master Solarin turned to face the constables. 'I believe the last case where a life sentence was issued was forty-two years ago: the Golden Park Ripper. A most unpleasant individual. Before your time, of course. For that you may consider yourselves lucky.

'Wow, Macsen said again.

'Congratulations, young man, Master Solarin said, and put his hand out.

Edeard took the old man's grip gently. 'Thank you, sir. You got the verdict for us.

'I didn't have much work to do, thanks to your extraordinary gift. I wish you luck in your future endeavours. It has been a privilege to be your legal instructor. But to use an ancient phrase, I think you have outgrown me now.

'Oh no, sir. I'm hoping for a lot more cases.

'And you'll get them, of that I'm in no doubt. And I'm not the only one, it would seem. Do you see the gentleman over there? His gnarled finger pointed with only a slight tremor.

Edeard and the others glanced in the direction the old lawyer indicated. They saw a man in a flamboyant blue jacket and grey drosilk shirt making his way along the main aisle. He was probably approaching the end of his first century, yet still hale and healthy, with thick brown hair hanging over his collar, only a few strands of which were turning to silver. He had heavy gold rings on every finger, and loops of gold chain round his neck. His face was fattening, the result of many years of good living. Even so, he looked physically powerful. He was watching them with pale-green eyes that were overshadowed by a broad forehead. Some accident or fight long ago had left him with a jaw that was unable to close straight, giving him slightly lopsided features. His whole appearance was one of a successful, self-confident merchant. As if to confirm this, he was accompanied by two beautiful girls who wore expensive dresses and a lot of jewellery. They were several years younger than Kristiana, Edeard decided with a little burst of sympathy for them. Then he met the man's gaze. It was a scrutiny every bit as intense as the one the Pythia had given him all those months ago. Edeard instinctively knew there was an enmity between them, and returned the stare levelly even though he didn't know why.

'Who is that? he asked quietly.

'That, Master Solarin said with extreme distaste, 'is Captain Ivarl.

'Has he some kind of ship? Edeard asked. He was mildly put out by the way the others groaned disparagingly.

'No, Chae said. 'He doesn't own a ship, though he makes out he used to captain a merchantman. Ivarl is the owner of the House of Blue Petals.

Edeard had heard of that establishment; a bordello in the Myco district, next to Makkathran's port.

Captain Ronark had come forward to stand at Edeard's shoulder. 'If the gangs in this city can be said to have a leader, Ronark said, 'it is Ivarl. He at least likes to style himself the master of our criminal fraternity. It was probably him who sent Arminel back to ambush you.

'Ah, Edeard said. He smiled politely, and inclined his head towards the villain.

Ivarl returned the gesture, tipping his gold-topped cane in Edeard's direction. Master Cherix came up behind him, and murmured something in his ear. Ivarl smiled tightly, and came over to the constables.

'My congratulations on an exemplary case, he said. His voice was rough and Edeard suspected the injury that left his jaw askew had caused some deeper damage.

'Thank you, Edeard said with a heavy dose of irony.

'This city is so much better off without such people, Ivarl continued. 'They are cheap vermin; they bring nothing to our lives. You, though, you are an exceptional man, Constable Edeard.

'I do my best. Edeard was uncomfortably aware of the way Macsen and one of Captain Ivarl's girls were smirking at each other. He wanted to smack his friend hard.

'As do we all, Ivarl said. 'Everyone in their own small way contributes to the flow of life of this fine city. In this respect, I extend an invitation to you and your friends to enjoy the hospitality of my house.

Edeard was very aware of everyone waiting for his response. So this is what Finitan was warning me about. I've shown the gangs that not all constables are pushovers, that their usual violence doesn't work against me, so they want to see how far I'm going to take this. Politics!

He allowed an old, deeply personal, image leak from his mind: the smouldering ruins of Ashwell, with corpses protruding from the ruins.

'I haven't been down to your district of the city yet, Edeard said. 'But I'm planning on visiting soon.

Ivarl's pudgy lips pressed together in a big display of disappointment. He shrugged elaborately. 'I look forward to meeting you there, young man. He turned and walked away, a girl clinging possessively to each arm.

Only then did Edeard notice the looks the others were giving him. 'What?

Captain Ronark smiled. 'Good man, Edeard. I knew you wouldn't betray yourself.

Chae gave him an admiring grin, and walked out with the captain.

'Where was that place? Boyd asked with trepidation.

'The village I grew up in, Edeard told him.

'Lady, just seeing it frightened me.

'I wanted some emphasis. I wanted to make sure Ivarl understood.

'Oh, I think he got it. You don't have to worry on that score.

'Shame, though, Macsen said wistfully. 'Did you see the blonde one?

'You peasant, Kanseen hissed at him.

'Hey! I can make noble painful sacrifices, too, you know. You have to have standards to be a part of the Waterwalker's squad.

'Don't call me that, Edeard said wearily.

'Too late, Boyd said. 'Far too late.

* * * * *

It was mid-afternoon when they got back to the Jeavons constable station. They claimed their usual table in the hall, and the ge-monkeys brought over plates of sandwiches and mugs of tea. Of late the station food had improved; local shopkeepers were keen to supply the constables with their better products at reasonable prices. Grateful for the noticeable reduction in gang activity in the district.

Edeard appreciated the gesture, but it made him very aware of the expectations settling on his shoulders. And now I've seen the real enemy. Arminel might be gone, but Ivarl can send a dozen more just like him on to the streets. A hundred.

After the elation of the trial it was a sobering thought. He hadn't really changed anything, just made himself famous. And ultimately, what use is that to people?

'Result, or what? Boyd said as he picked up one of the sandwiches, a malted roll containing ham and cheese with a strong tomato chutney. He bit in contentedly.

All the other constables in the station were making a point of coming over to congratulate them on the verdict. Edeard was finally getting embarrassed by the admiration.

'Yes. A result all right, Kanseen said, picking through the rest of the sandwiches. 'But it's only one result.

'Trust you to pour on the ice water, Macsen said.

'She's right, Edeard said. 'We're going to have to do a lot more than this before the gangs even start getting worried.

'Not so. Ivarl is worried enough about the Waterwalker to crawl out from under his rock and get a firsthand look, Boyd said.

'Will you please stop calling me that?

'I thought Arminel would get thirty to forty years at least, Macsen said. 'But for the rest of his life? He's only, what, thirty? That's at least a hundred and fifty years in Trampello. It's not exactly a pavilion on the Iguru. A hundred and fifty years! Owain must really want to be re-elected.

'I'm not sorry for him, Edeard said. 'He was going to kill me.

'Because Ivarl told him to, Kanseen said.

'You think so?

'No way could he put together an ambush like that without a lot of help. He'd need permission. Ivarl must have agreed.

'Oh Lady, Macsen muttered in alarm. 'Look out.

Edeard's farsight showed him Captain Ronark leading Chief Constable Walsfol into the hall. Everyone fell silent, benches were scraped across the floor as the constables stood up. Even the ge-chimps stopped moving.

Chief Constable Walsfol walked directly over to Edeard's table. He was in his full dress uniform, an immaculate black tunic with gold buttons and scarlet epaulettes with a diamond stud. Edeard had been introduced briefly the day after he arrested Arminel; he'd actually been quite impressed with the Chief Constable. The man was in his second century, and the fact he'd fought his way to the top of the constables was evident in his manner. Walsfol was a straight talking man, secure his position was achieved through the support of the stations.

Walsfol saluted smartly. Edeard hurriedly returned the salute.

'An excellent day, Constable, Walsfol said in his clipped aristocratic accent. 'You have done this station proud.

'Thank you, sir.

Walsfol took a pair of epaulettes from his pocket. They had a single silver star on them. 'As a consequence of your bravery and actions in Birmingham Pool, I would like to offer you promotion to corporal.

It might have been Edeard's imagination, but he was sure the word 'offer' was stressed. But he was so relieved that this was the test Finitan had spoken of rather than Ivarl's crude attempt at bribery he simply said, 'Yes, sir; thank you, sir, I'd be honoured to accept.

Captain Ronark led the applause as the Chief Constable attached the epaulettes to Edeard's shoulders. Of course Finitan wasn't talking about Ivarl, Edeard chided himself, the Grand Council want to know if I'm going to support their authority. Lady! Do they think I might be a challenge to them?

Walsfol finished, and saluted again.

* * * * *

'Corporal Waterwalker, Macsen said, holding up his beer and laughing.

Edeard had now completely surrendered to the ribbing he was getting. They'd all wound up in the Olivan's Eagle for a few celebratory drinks, claiming a small booth in the upstairs bar where they were relatively undisturbed.

'I wonder which squads will be under your command? Kanseen mused. 'Corporals are normally in charge of three.

'Please don't team us up with Droal's lot, Boyd said. 'They're worthless crap artists, and everyone knows Vilby is on the take.

'I didn't know that, said Edeard.

'What, with all your psychic superpowers? Macsen asked.

Edeard showed him the hand gesture Obron always used to employ, only to find it summoned up a mournful nostalgia that unexpectedly made his eyes water. Obron, he would be twenty-three now

'You're going to have to think about this, Edeard, Kanseen said. 'Seriously, they're all going to watch what you do with the promotion. It's an opportunity to put together a team of your own constables, people you know you can rely on.

'Yeah, yeah. Edeard didn't really want to think of all the responsibility which came with his new position. Unfortunately, his problem was that he couldn't stop worrying about what he should do next. Gangs and constables would both want to see what he was capable of, if he was just some strong lad from the countryside happy with the attention of all the city girls, or someone who would stand up for the law and make a difference. The Orchard Palace probably want to know as well.

'I suppose I'll have to keep you lot, he said with a grand show of reluctance.

It was Boyd's turn for the hand gesture.

'Even Dinlay? Macsen said in such a soft voice only Edeard heard him.

'Yes, Edeard said with a tiny directed longtalk. 'Even Dinlay.

Macsen scowled into his beer glass.

'And what are you going to do with this team of yours? Kanseen asked earnestly. 'It's only fifteen people, after all.

'Two months ago it was just the five of us, Edeard said calmly. 'We can shape ourselves into something useful, I'm sure. That's if Ronark will allow us. There are procedures, after all.

'Not to start with, Boyd said, uncharacteristically serious. 'You've got some momentum behind you, Waterwalker, and a great deal of goodwill. This is your chance to make something of it.

'Dear Lady, give him a beer and listen to the politician sprout forth, Edeard groaned.

'I know Makkathran, Boyd insisted. 'There's a chance here for you. He put his arms around Kanseen and Macsen. 'And we three native guides are going to make sure you don't blow that chance.

'You three, Edeard rolled his eyes, 'Great. How can we fail?

'We stick together, Macsen said. 'Always have, always will, no matter what.

'No matter what! They all drank to that.

Boyd pushed his empty glass across the table. 'And with your new corporal's pay, I believe you can afford the next round.

'Sorry, Edeard said, standing up and buttoning his tunic. 'I have an appointment at the Alrado theatre, and it's a long walk to the Zelda district.

'An appointment? Macsen inquired keenly.

'Someone from the Guild of Clerks, they're helping me with taxes.

He left to the sounds of their derisive laughter. Just as he started down the awkward curving stairs he heard Kanseen exclaim: 'No! I bought the last round.

* * * * *

It was cold on the streets outside Olivan's Eagle. Frost was clinging to the city's pavements, and there were flakes of snow drifting down past the bright orange lights shining out of the buildings. People wrapped in thick coats wove past Edeard as he made his way along Albie Lane towards Flight Canal. He'd thrown out a seclusion haze to ward off curious farsight, as did all Makkathran's citizens going about business they regarded as private. The effect was like a mild version of concealment.

Edeard was approaching the iron bridge over to the Haxpen district when his farsight swept over a figure for the third time. They'd been trailing him for some time, ignoring his obvious wish to be left alone. He focused on them to find it was: 'Salrana, he exclaimed.

She scurried forwards, thoughts radiant with impish delight. Almost as tall as him now, he acknowledged. Her full length dark-grey poncho coat flapped as she moved, a big hood pulled well forwards. 'You're so slow, she admonished, giggling. 'I've been following you ever since you left the tavern. If I was an assassin, you'd be dead by now. She pushed her hood back, allowing her auburn hair to flow free, and kissed him breathlessly. 'You know, I hardly recognized you with your hair so long. The city fashion suits you.

Edeard grinned back, very aware that she was still pressed up against him. He studied her face with its sharp cheeks and lovely dark brown eyes that were wide and teasing. She was gorgeous now, and because of that he kept trying to avoid her. They still longtalked every day, but he kept using the trial as an excuse for not actually meeting up. Just being with her on a cold gloomy street made him embarrassed about all the girls he'd tumbled these last few weeks, so spending a pleasant afternoon together with her would be torture.

Why? he asked himself. She's beautiful, and she wants me, and I'd adore having her in my bed and my life. We really would be the perfect couple. The only other who even comes close is Kanseen.

His hesitation was born out of some stupid notion of duty. At least that was always the excuse he gave himself. He really did feel protective towards her — and that was hardly necessary any more. It wasn't as if they were alone against the world these days. Maybe he was just afraid to change the way things were; there had been so many upheavals, she was his constant in a very unsteady life. And how she'd hate being told that. She was young and vivacious, and wanted some fun. She deserved happiness. And they would be happy together…

'Gosh, seeing me really does cheer you up, doesn't it? she mocked.

'Sorry, he smiled, pushing his emotions down below any possible farsight perception. 'It's fantastic to see you, but that just reminds me what I've got to do tonight.

'Really? she asked brightly. Her arm tucked through his, and they started to walk over the iron bridge. 'You poor thing. It must be truly terrible having to entertain Kristiana and Ranalee in your bed.

Edeard stopped in shock. 'How on Querencia did you know that?

She giggled again, delighted to have flustered him. 'Oh

Edeard, the whole city knows who's snagged the Waterwalker tonight. Kristiana has been bragging in half the saloons in town today. And you know what this city is for gossip.

'Yes, he said brokenly. Then, because he couldn't help it, he asked, 'Are people really talking about my love life?

'Talking. Singing. Writing books on it. I think they're planning a play for the ox-roast on Golden Park this New Year.

'Shut up.

She pressed him against the railing and kissed him again. Her skin was warm, soft and silky. Her scent strong. 'Will the second act be us? And the third and the fourth?

Edeard almost pushed her away. Instead, with a massive effort of will he smiled back ruefully, and turned round to lean on the rail. Then he put his arm round her. Her mind's flash of delighted surprise at the gesture was intoxicating. 'Have I been really stupid? he asked.

'Only rejecting me. The rest of it, you're just like any Grand Family son on his fifteenth birthday. You've got the run of the city, Edeard. The difference between you and them is that you earned it. People are fascinated to learn what's going to happen next; if Arminel was just a fluke, or you're truly going to be the Waterwalker.

He sighed. 'I hate that name.

'I hope… Edeard, I hope you live up to it. Did you know church attendance has gone up since Birmingham Pool? You displayed duty and honour that day, as well as courage. They're traits so sorely lacking in this city. It showed people what was absent from their own lives. It was a wonderful thing, Edeard.

He stared down into the dark water with its surface crust of slush. There were ripples near the far bank where fil-rats were nesting. A couple of gondoliers were edging their way towards them along from High Pool on the Grand Major Canal, their lamps glinting on their prows, their gondoliers harmonizing a gentle melody. 'I don't know what to do next, he confessed. 'Actually, that's not true. I know what I should do. But if I go there, if I use my talent to take on the gangs, then there'll be no turning back. Right now I can do nothing, and all the fuss will die down. But…

She hugged him back. It was a gesture more intimate than any of her flirting had ever kindled. 'You can't do that, she whispered. 'You know you can't.

'Yeah. I know that. Thank you.

'I'm just passing on the Lady's teachings, Edeard. That's what I've given my life to.

'You're such a good person, Salrana,

She leaned in playfully. 'I don't want to be. Not with you. And those family girls, they say you're a good lover.

Edeard shivered with mortification. All Makkathran is discussing that? Yet, at the same time… 'You don't want to believe everything you hear.

'Don't I? she said archly.

'Well okay, I admit that bit's true.

'Oh listen to you! She thumped him on the shoulder, then immediately pulled him in closer and kissed him again.

It was like that time back in the bottom of the well. He knew he shouldn't. But, actually, there wasn't any real reason why not. For once let the heart rule, not the mind.

A couple walked past them, farsight gently examining the young couple embracing with growing ardour. Heads turned.

'It is him, the woman whispered. 'The Waterwalker.

'And that's a Lady's Novice!

A longtalk voice was directed at a number of acquaintances: 'You'll never guess—

Edeard and Salrana broke apart smirking like scolded apprentices. They straightened their clothes and moved down the slope of the bridge to the Haxpen side.

'I'm going to get a reputation worse than Dybal, Edeard decided.

'Good camouflage. The gangs will underestimate you if they think you're just a wicked womaniser.

'Yeah, he laughed. 'Tis a terrible price. Come on, I'll walk you back to Millical House. It's sort of on my route.

'No it isn't.

'Actually, it is. I am going to try and achieve something. You and the Lady are right, it would be wrong not to try.

'And that's tonight?

'Yes. It's perfect. Nobody will expect me to do any kind of constable work tonight.

'I certainly didn't.

'I know. We really need to talk.

'We've talked for three years, Edeard!

'Yeah. And he was hugely tempted. As always. Perhaps dealing with Ivarl could wait one day.

'Actually, I'm not being fair, Salrana said.

'Oh?

'My House Mother told me yesterday. I'm being assigned to the Lady's hospital in Ufford for the winter.

'Where's that?

'Capital town of Tralsher province, that's south of the Iguru.

'What? No!

'Yeah. Nursing is all part of our training.

'But there are hospitals in Makkathran.

'The Church doesn't work that way. It wants us to learn of life outside the crystal wall.

'You know more of life outside than any city Mother does, or ever will, he said with petulance.

'And telling them that would not be helpful.

'I could ask Master Finitan if he could speak to your Mother.

Salrana chuckled softly. 'Really? That ought to do it. A friend of his wants a Novice as a mistress, so could you please change her traditional training schedule to make that possible'

'Ah. No, put like that, I suppose not.

'You suppose right.

'But you wouldn't be my mistress.

'Wouldn't I?

'No, he shook his head firmly. 'No. Never. We would be equals. True lovers.

'Oh, Edeard. A tear emerged from her eye as she looked up at him. 'Say that again. Promise me! Promise we'll be lovers when I get back.

Edeard took both her hands in his own. 'As the Lady is my witness, I promise.

* * * * *

Edeard took the tall bridge beside High Pool, the one with the crystal apex. On this night the transparency made no difference, it looked like he was walking on some glossy black substance smeared by slush. It brought him out into the empty streets of Eyrie, which he hurried through on his way to the Zelda district. He hadn't planned on coming this far, but if everyone knew he was meeting the girls there, he should at least appear to be on his way in case he was being observed. Part of him was still aghast that the city knew about his love life, though he accepted he really only had himself to blame. It was strange that none of his friends had mentioned it. Did they assume he knew? That was the problem with not growing up in the city, everyone took it for granted he was familiar with the culture.

Once he was over Grove Canal the buildings changed to a warren of modest houses and shops and craft halls. The walls closed in as he deliberately chose a route that took him down the narrowest streets. In Polteral Alley he was completely alone, it was a tiny passageway between the backs of buildings, a zigzag that was barely one person wide. Indeed, there were alcoves in the walls to allow people to pass — given their slightly strange inward bulge a couple of feet above the ground he could only speculate what the city's original inhabitants had looked like. At night nobody used it, the thick walls prevented anyone from using farsight along its length, and it effectively blocked longtalk. If you were mugged in here, no one would know until morning. Edeard sent his farsight out ahead of him, checking the alcoves were all empty. When he was halfway along, he stopped under an overhanging section of wall and wove a concealment around himself. Once he was sure no one was following him, he asked Makkathran's somnolent mind to allow him passage once more. It was easier for him now; after that first time behind the shops in Sonral Street, he'd taken to practising in secluded spots like this one. There were many in the city.

The pavement under his feet changed, producing a subliminal swirl of coloured symbols. Edeard's feet sank through it as if it had no more substance than fog. Some force lowered him gently into the drain fissure running beneath the buildings. As always he felt as if he was plummeting from a great height.

Edeard walked for several minutes until the drain opened out halfway up the curving wall of the big tunnel which ran directly underneath the Grand Major Canal. He placed his feet tentatively on the little steps he'd asked the city to create down the wall. Even so, with the water gurgling over his boots, it was a treacherous descent. His previous explorations had revealed that Makkathran's entire canal network was duplicated down here in the city's hidden underworld, not that he'd ever walked their length. The crest of the main tunnel glowed with a faint tangerine light, showing him the stream which ran along the bottom. It was higher than usual tonight, indicating how much water was dripping out of the pavement slush and into the drains. A ledge allowed him to walk beside it, though he had to splash across the broad circular pools of the junctions. Water poured in over the tops of his boots. It was freezing. Not for the first time, he wondered if he could somehow bring a little boat down here. In the end he settled for using his third hand to hold the water back from his shins. He'd found that doing the whole Waterwalker trick and stabilizing the surface was too exhausting to maintain for any length of time.

Eventually, he turned off down the tunnel below the Upper Tail Canal. After a few hundred yards he scrambled his way up into another drain. He wasn't terribly familiar with the Myco district, but his farsight could easily penetrate the city's substance now. To his mind, it was as if the structure around him was built from nothing more than cloudy glass. He stopped below a secluded corner of a little square, and the city lifted him up, elevating him out into the thickening snowfall. By the time he emerged he'd cloaked himself in a concealment again.

A couple of sailors in their traditional magenta-coloured half-cloaks walked through the square, oblivious to him. He grinned at their backs, and set off in the opposite direction.

The House of Blue Petals fronted the Upper Tail Canal, looking directly across the warehouse domes of the port. A four storey establishment with a vermiculated facade, the oval windows surrounded by onyx-like anthemion friezes. Protruding from the upper slope of its mansard roof were several hemispherical windows, as if it had grown giant eyes to peer up at the nebulas of Querencia's skies. Edeard frowned up at them, puzzled by the faint violet glow that emanated from within. It had been a long time since he'd seen anything other than Makkathran's ubiquitous orange glow at night.

The three tall doorways of the ground floor were all open. The sound of piano music was spilling out into the street, accompanied by laughter and loud voices. Doormen in black jackets similar to constable tunics stood on either side of each heavy wooden door. Edeard held his breath and slipped past them, watching anxiously to see if they could sense him. One of them frowned, looking round at some phantom disturbance; but didn't raise any challenge.

Half of the ground floor was a bar, with the piano in the middle hammering out a jolly tune. Smartly dressed stewards mixed cocktails behind a long polished counter, which groomed ge-monkeys delivered. Polished tables were accompanied by high-backed leather armchairs where the customers relaxed with a drink as they waited for the madam to come round. Two big black iron stoves on opposite sides threw out a comforting heat as coal blazed away behind their grilles. The room was a high one, taking up two floors, with a wooden gallery running round it. Girls with strangely stiff curly hair leaned over the railing, wearing low-cut, brightly coloured dresses; grinning at the men below as they made eye contact and blew kisses and made saucy longtalk calls.

Edeard watched the wide wooden stairs which had been fixed to the wall, seeing who was coming up and down. It wasn't just sailors who visited Ivarl's establishment; judging by the clothes a large proportion were men from the Guilds and families. He even saw a couple of militia officers in their sharp blue and scarlet uniforms. No constables, though. Probably can't afford it.

He waited, getting a feel for the routine, and probing about with his farsight. The madam would go from table to table, sharing a few pleasant words with the clientele. There would be a brief discussion about the girls, some requesting an old favourite, some taking their pick from the gallery. A fee was either handed over discreetly or for regulars an addition made to their account, and as soon as the man had finished his drink he'd go upstairs to be greeted by the courtesan he'd chosen.

After a couple of minutes standing near the foot of the stairs, Edeard followed a carpentry Guildsman up to the gallery. The selected courtesan flounced along to throw her arms round the Guildsman in welcome. They headed off down one of the side corridors. Edeard hurried past the other girls, startled by how strong their perfume was, which made him worry he might sneeze. Then he was wiggling through an archway shielded by curtains. That was the most difficult part, trying to disguise the motion of the thick red velvet.

On the other side was an unembellished corridor leading back to stairs which took him up to the third floor. He'd sensed the layout of the rooms up there, with over thirty people gathered in groups. Ivarl was easy enough to discern, Edeard wasn't going to forget his mind in a hurry.

Edeard didn't bother with the door, opening it unseen would be impossible. Instead he asked the city to change a section of the wall, and ghosted his way through. The gang master was holding court in a long room at the end of the building. Four of the1 grandiose oval windows looked out eastwards to the Lyot Sea. Tonight they were covered by thick curtains. A green-enamel stove burnt hot in the corner, making Edeard wish he wasn't wearing his coat. Nobody else in the room was.

Ivarl's grey shirt was unbuttoned, showing off a thick mat of hair on his chest. His boots were off, resting against the side of the deep-cushioned leather settee he was lounging on. Seven other men were in attendance. Their fine clothes emphasised the illusion of them belonging to some Grand Family or merchant house. It was an image Edeard couldn't get rid of, as if they'd somehow established a Guild for their criminality, and enjoyed the same benefits as any of Makkathran's legitimate enterprises. When he'd first learned of the gangs, he'd assumed they'd consist of sour faced men in shabby clothes meeting furtively in dark underground rooms — not this.

There was a table along one wall, with gold and silver platters laden with food every bit as delicious as that served in a Lillylight restaurant. It complemented a selection of wine from estates Edeard had never even heard of.

Three girls were walking round with bottles, filling up the cut crystal goblets held by the men. They were wearing long diaphanous skirts and simple suede slippers; nothing else. Edeard stared, feeling mildly guilty, as if he'd deliberately snuck into their bedroom. Lady, you stupid country boy. What did you think girls would wear in a place like this? Then he really looked at them. Two were the girls who'd accompanied Ivarl to the court this morning. The third…

Edeard couldn't help the little groan of dismay which escaped his throat. Luckily, the men didn't hear him over their own conversation. It was Nanitte, the dancer Macsen had brought back to his maisonette the night before the ambush at Birmingham Pool. Now that was scary. Ivarl clearly operated at a level which had completely eluded Edeard. This room was the right setting for the gang master after all; he was smart and sophisticated, with money and an unseen influence that extended a great deal further than Edeard liked to think about.

Edeard had come here in the hope of overhearing a few incriminating conversations. Now he knew that Ivarl wasn't going to be removed simply by a couple of well planned arrests and some raids. If he was going to do this, to take out Ivarl and ruin the gangs, he was going to have to sharpen up his own act considerably. He would have to learn how Ivarl functioned, where his interests lay, who his friends were. With a depressing sensation, Edeard guessed that the gang master could never have grown to this stature without help from the city's establishment.

One thing at a time.

He strengthened his concealment, and settled down to listen.

* * * * *

It snowed the day after New Year. Big soft flakes sliding down out of a grey sky, deadening the sound of the city. Edeard bathed early, then ate a decent breakfast of scrambled eggs and grilled bacon, with some slices of Orkby black pudding thrown in the frying pan along with his mushrooms. He was pretty certain he wasn't going to get any lunch today. When he dressed he made sure his new, thickened drosilk waistcoat was fastened properly, then added a pair of drosilk undertrousers as well. There could well be a lot of resistance from the gang members during the raid, and he knew over half of them were armed with pistols.

He went out on to the walkway to finish his mug of tea, looking down on to the pool in the central oval courtyard. Snowflakes sank silently into the still surface as strands of vapour rose up. The water was too warm to freeze, but not warm enough for any of the kids to swim in. Edeard had thought about increasing the pool's temperature, as he'd done with his own maisonette, but once again he'd resisted for fear of drawing attention to his ability.

Boyd and Dinlay came along the walkway, their cheeks Hushed by the cold air. Dinlay as always was immaculately turned out, with a regulation knee-length coat exactly the same colour as his tunic, even the silver buttons were the same size and shape.

Boyd had chosen a brown leather greatcoat, quilted on the inside. Edeard had admired it so much, he'd gone to the same shop in Cobara district to get himself one.

'Everything okay? Dinlay asked anxiously. Since his return to duties two months ago, he'd been working hard to prove himself to his squadmates. Too keen, really; but they'd all gritted their teeth and waited until he lost his manic edge.

Edeard was praying to the Lady that this raid would make him feel like a full part of the team again; and he had one last trick to make that a reality. 'No movement. The ge-eagles have been watching the street all night. Trukal and Harawold are still inside. Lian is with his girlfriend in Sampalok.

'What about Ivarl?

'Where he always is, Edeard said. He was actually surprised by how little Ivarl ventured out of the House of Blue Petals; but then anyone he wanted to see responded quickly to his summons. There were Grand Council Masters who didn't command that much respect. On the plus side, that made it a lot easier for Edeard to keep watch on his opponent; by now he knew the House of Blue Petals better than any building in Makkathran except Jeavons station.

For the last two weeks he'd eavesdropped on the plans for their robbery in Vaji district. It was audacious and impressive, breaking in to the Chemistry Guild yard during New Year's Eve, and stealing their stockpile of platinum ingots. The planning was meticulous, using over twenty gang members and four gondoliers. They'd gathered guard rosters, bribed a couple of Guild members to leave certain doors open, used girls to make sure other strategic people were away from their posts. They even staged a fight in a tavern to occupy constables from Vaji station — what could be more natural than a drunken brawl on New Year's Eve?

Once he'd learned all that, the real manoeuvring game began. Edeard told the squads under his command that he'd got a source in Ivarl's gang, and there was a robbery being arranged. That took less than a day to get back to the gang master, and the resulting friction and suspicion it unleashed among otherwise trusted lieutenants was a joy to behold. Then Edeard convinced Ronark to allow the robbery to go ahead, promising his 'source' had revealed the hideaway where the ingots were to be stashed. That was where the constables' raid should take place, he insisted, after they'd let the gang think they'd got away with it, and hopefully luring out senior gang members to the hideaway as they began to fence the platinum to unscrupulous merchants and loose-moraled jewellers.

After that, Ivarl called in Trukal and Lian to announce a slight change of plan that only the three of them would know about. Edeard almost laughed out loud as they quietly plotted their reverse deception. After all the deceit and counter-trickery was starting to muddle his head, but this wasn't about the robbery anymore. This was him and Ivarl going head on. Watching Ivarl from within his concealment, he could see his adversary knew that, too.

Kanseen and Macsen arrived outside Edeard's maisonette. They looked eager.

'No hangover? Edeard enquired lightly.

'Not from last night, Macsen said. 'I have an example to set to the rest of your squads. I was in bed by nine o'clock with a cup of hot chocolate. He winked at Boyd. 'Alisool knows how to make really good chocolate.

Kanseen wrinkled up her nose. 'Lady preserve us from your ego.

'Let's go, Edeard told them.

* * * * *

When they got to the Jeavons station, the two other squads that were under Edeard's command were already waiting for them in the small hall. Everybody was sharing the same anticipatory glow. Droal and Urarl, the squad leaders, both saluted, which Edeard returned scrupulously. He was doing his best not to direct any attention towards Vilby.

'Everything all right? Urarl asked. He was a couple of years older than Edeard, a third son from a smithy in the Cobara district. Strictly speaking he'd been due promotion, though he never showed any resentment towards Edeard for making corporal first.

'They haven't moved, Edeard assured everyone in the hall. 'Chae's team has been observing them all night. The ingots are there waiting for us, and we've identified seventeen gang members involved. The courts are going to be very busy this afternoon.

Captain Ronark led another three squads into the small hall. 'Ready to go? he asked.

'Yes, sir, Edeard said.

'Here's your weapons certificate, the station commander said, handing over a small parchment with his official seal. 'I've just longtalked with the commanders of Neph and Bellis stations; they're reserving some squads to assist with the arrests. Good move, that. Don't want to put their noses out of joint.

'Thank you, sir. Edeard looked up as Probationary Constable Felax hurried into the room. The lad was only seventeen; he'd joined up just after Birmingham Pool, along with twenty others. Chae claimed his life was now a nightmare trying to train so many worthless screw-ups. Privately, of course, he was loving it.

'All the warrants signed, sir, Felax said. 'Judge Salby says good luck.

Edeard put the warrants into his pocket without looking at them. 'You can stay with us for today, we'll need runners.

'Thank you sir, Felax said worshipfully.

'Okay, your attention please, Edeard said, stepping up on a bench. 'The ingots taken from the Chemistry Guild are sitting underneath a house in Whitemire Street in Sampalok. They're being guarded by five or six armed gang members, however we expect more gang members to arrive this morning to begin distributing them to dodgy merchants across the city. Keeping the ingots in one place is risky for them. So we need to move in after those carriers arrive and before they leave. That will give us the maximum amount of people to arrest. Once we have recovered the ingots, we'll also be arresting everyone involved in the crime; but I have to stress we need the ingots as evidence. The first time I was in court with Arminel taught me that.

A ripple of laughter went round the room.

'We have three ge-eagles and ten ge-hounds from this station as back up; and in addition we'll have a number of other squads from Bellis and Neph. We know some of the gang members are armed, which is why we're being issued with pistols; but please only use them as a last resort. I don't want any casualties. This is a big operation, and it's going to send a very loud New Year message from us constables to the gangs that this is going to be their last year in Makkathran.

Macsen and Dinlay led the applause and whistles.

* * * * *

'It's going to be total chaos, Macsen said as they made their way down the Grand Major Canal on a gondola, another four gondolas were following them carrying the rest of the squads.

'Why? Dinlay demanded irately. 'Edeard has done a great job organizing this.

'Oh yeah? Who has responsibility when we arrive? The squads from Bellis and Neph are going to want to grab the credit, and they'll be led by sergeants. No disrespect, Edeard, but there are too many constables involved. The squads aren't used to working as a big team.

'I know, Edeard said. He sat back happily in the gondola, and smiled up at the sky. It had stopped snowing, with the clouds starting to clear. Strong fingers of winter sunlight were stabbing down to glare on the snow-clad buildings of the city. With people starting to return to work after the New Year holiday, Makkathran had an air of clean expectation. He liked that.

'What are you up to? Kanseen asked suspiciously.

'Actually, it's a lot worse than Macsen says, Edeard said cheerfully. He glanced back at the gondolier who was trying not to show too much obvious interest, and leaned forward to whisper to his friends. 'The gang knows we're coming.

'How? Boyd asked.

'My source told me. In fact the link was a simple one. Three nights each week Vilby paid a visit to a private room in the Black Horse tavern where Nanitte was waiting for him.

'Who in the Lady's name is this source? Macsen demanded. 'Everything we've done these last weeks is governed by what they've told us — you!

'Can't tell you. Edeard hadn't quite summoned up the courage to tell Macsen — of course, Macsen probably wouldn't even remember Nanitte.

Macsen growled and slumped back.

'So what do we do? Dinlay asked.

'Use their arrogance against them.

The squads from Bellis and Neph were waiting on the bridge by Mid Pool. Edeard's gondola pulled in to a mooring platform, and he got off to consult with the two sergeants in charge. Macsen had been right, their eagerness was palpable; Edeard knew they wouldn't follow his polite requests to coordinate with him. It would end up in a rush to make the arrests. He took out a map and showed them where the suspect house was in Whitemire Street, and they agreed to a pincer movement with their squads going through Pholas Park while Edeard took his across Myco, so they could converge on the hideaway from opposite sides. If the gang members did sense them coming, they'd still be trapped.

Edeard's gondola carried on down Great Major Canal, with Bellis on one side and Sampalok on the other. The difference was pronounced. Along the canal, the cylindrical buildings of Bellis were roofed by long twisting spires, cup-like juliet balconies bulged out of the walls as if they'd sagged open.

Sampalok was made up from big tenements not dissimilar to the one Edeard lived in, except these were three or four times the size, and the maisonettes were smaller. Families here were packed in tight. The broad streets circling the tenements were cluttered with rubbish; the district's ge-monkey sanitation teams seemed unable to cope. It was worse than Ashwell had been. Ami that would be a good starting point, Edeard thought, improve basic living conditions, give people higher expectations. So why doesn't the District Master do something?

As if reflecting their surroundings, the residents close to the canal stared sullenly at the gondoliers carrying the constables. They spat into the water and made obscene gestures. A few third hands nudged at the little craft. Gangs of kids jeered when they saw the uniforms.

'Little buggers, Boyd grunted.

'They need to be shown a different way, Edeard said. 'That's all.

'Too late, Macsen said. 'This is what they know, it's the way life is lived here. You can't change it.

Edeard stared at the skyline of sturdy uninspiring buildings, thinking how he could improve them, the new forms and functions he could shape. 'Don't be too sure, he whispered.

Kanseen gave him a curious look, but said nothing.

They all disembarked at First Pool and made their way into Myco. It was strange for Edeard seeing it in daylight for once. Nothing like as shabby as its neighbour, the small district was occupied predominately by the families of fishermen and shipbuilders, with a large Guild presence. They had a much stronger sense of community; pride Macsen called it.

'News for you, Chae's directed longtalk informed Edeard as I hey walked down Maley Street, not far from the House of Blue Petals.

'What?

'You're not going to believe who's just turned up to examine the ingots.

'Who?

'The good Captain Ivarl, himself.

The squad members close to Edeard started grinning, hungry with anticipation.

'That makes sense, Edeard replied.

'Lady, we've got him, Boyd told the others, giving them a broad two thumbs up.

'What do you mean? Chae asked.

'He's come to gloat, Edeard told him. His own farsight showed him the squads from Bellis and Neph hurrying through Pholas Park. As expected, they already crossed into Sampalok via the bridge over Trade Route Canal, which put them a lot closer to the hideaway than Edeard. They'd arrive a good ten minutes early.

'What are you thinking? Kanseen asked shrewdly.

Edeard halted the squads, and beckoned Felax forward. He handed an envelope over to the young probationary constable. 'I want you to go directly to the house in Whitemire Street and deliver this to the sergeants from the other squads.

The lad saluted. 'Yes, sir, Waterwalker.

'Quick as you can now, Edeard said. He instructed one of the ge-eagles to keep watch on the lad as he started running.

'What's happening? Macsen demanded.

'Slight change of plan, Edeard announced. 'Follow me, please.

He turned off down Campden Avenue, which was lined with winter-flowering Jakral trees whose sky-blue puffball flowers were just budding. Water dripped of the encrustations of snow on their overhanging branches. There were a lot of whispers and longtalk queries behind him, which he ignored. They were heading away from Sampalok now; the avenue led straight to the Upper Tail Canal which bordered the Port district.

'Dinlay, Edeard called. 'Take Urarl's squad, and split off down the next alley. He held up the map so only his friend could see it. 'That's the building we want; you come at it from this side, his finger indicated. 'Make sure no one leaves, remember to watch the windows, and the roof.

'What's in there? Dinlay asked.

Edeard leant forward so his lips were almost touching Dinlay's ear. 'The ingots.

The switch had been made with considerable precision in the middle of the night. As the gondolas loaded with ingots made their way back from the Chemistry Guild yard to the safety of Sampalok they passed under several bridges along Roseway Canal, including the broad stone and iron archway at the end of Abad's Royal Boulevard, which led over to Nighthouse district. It took precision timing, but Ivarl made sure that another gondola was going in the opposite direction at exactly the same time. For a few seconds the gondolas were out of direct view of the ge-eagles which the constables were using to observe them. The solid bridge structure made farsight difficult especially when the gondolas were surrounded by a seclusion haze. Identical boxes were thrown between the gondolas.

Edeard had to admire how smoothly they'd managed it. What Ivarl hadn't taken into account was for Edeard to know the plan in its entirety, and be using the sight of a ge-cat swimming idly under the bridge. Grand Master Finitan had been happy to help, loaning Edeard fifteen of the genistars so he could position several under each bridge. Once Edeard had confirmed the switch had been made, it was easy for him to track the new gondolas as they took a long route back round to Myco, where they landed the boxes at a slipway. Ivarl's men carried the boxes into a fisherman's warehouse.

'Oh dear, Chae's sardonic longtalk reverberated round Edeard's squads. 'Captain Ivarl seems to be upset about something. His gifted sight showed the gang master rushing out of the house in Sampalok, his face red, almost running. Several of his lieutenants were following, their expressions anxious.

Edeard grinned at the warehouse, twenty yards ahead now. The big doors were open, showing a gloomy interior filled with barrels. Several fishermen and women were sitting outside, mending nets. More nets were hung up in great loops inside, drying off.

'Seal it up, Edeard told his squads.

The people working on the nets looked up in alarm as the constables appeared. Ge-eagles swooped low, keeping a keen eye on the slipway leading into the warehouse. Ge-hounds growled in warning.

'Please remain where you are, Edeard announced. 'I have a warrant to search the premises.

Dinlay and two constables blocked one of the fishermen who tried to sprint away.

'Kanseen, take Macsen and Droal inside, have a scan round for me, please. You might want to check the cellars.

'You sneaky beast, she muttered, grinning as she went into the warehouse.

Then Edeard's farsight caught someone running down the slipway on the other side of the warehouse. He jumped off the side of the canal, holding the surface of the water firm as he landed. It held his weight, with only a slight dint under each foot as he ran round to the slipway. People on the other side of the wide canal stooped and stared. Fingers were pointed. Cheers echoed across the icy water. Children called their friends to watch. It was the Waterwalker, they cried, he's doing it again.

Edeard arrived at the end of the slipway. Lian was there, trying to push a small dinghy into the water. 'Don't go, Edeard asked nicely. 'We're only just getting started.

Lian was longtalking frantically. One hand went to the coat pocket with his pistol.

Edeard gave him a warning look. 'It didn't do Arminel any good. Remember?

Lian glared furiously, but backed away from the boat, raising his hands. Droal came down the slipway behind him and removed the pistol before slapping on the handcuffs.

'What is going on? demanded the sergeant from Bellis station. Edeard's farsight observed them arriving at the house in Sampalok.

'We farsighted them moving the stolen items earlier, Edeard replied, keeping his mental tone level as he examined the dinghy. 'Didn't have time to tell you. Sorry. My runner has a list for you. It has the names of everyone involved in the Chemical Guild robbery. Most of them live in the tenements close to the hideaway. Would you arrest them, please? He was aware of the callous humour shining out of Chae's mind as the Bellis sergeant snatched the envelope from Felax.

'Oh, Lady, Kanseen exclaimed. 'Edeard, you've got to see this.

'On my way, he said.

The cellar under the warehouse was one of Ivarl's clandestine stores. Edeard had only taken a fast sweep with his farsight a couple of days earlier for fear of attracting attention. He'd noted the crates, bottles, and sacks piled up in the three vaulting cellars underneath. There were a lot of them.

Macsen and Urarl began opening crates, finding an astonishing array of expensive silverware. Smaller boxes contained jewellery. The sacks held bales of raw drosilk. There were bags of tea and spices from provinces hundreds of miles along the coast. Mottles of fortified wines were stacked to the arching ceilings.

'It's going to take a week to list all this, Urarl said in astonishment. They'd only opened the first few boxes in one cellar.

'Help's on its way, Edeard assured him.

By wonderful coincidence Ronark arrived at the same time as Ivarl. The Jeavons captain led three gondolas carrying accountants from the Guild of Clerks, who had followed Edeard down the Great Major Canal at a leisurely pace. They moored to the slipway at the same time Ivarl came hurtling out of Campden Avenue, out of breath and very very angry.

'I forgot you said you lived around here. Edeard smiled at the gang master. 'How nice to see you again.

Ivarl glared at Edeard, then at the impassive Captain Ronark. His gold-topped cane was raised. He hesitated.

'Is there something we can do for you? Edeard asked as Dinlay and Kanseen carried the first boxes of ingots out of the warehouse. Ivarl's wild-eyed stare switched to the boxes with their precious contents.

'Would you like to retrieve something in here, perhaps? Edeard continued. 'We'll need to see an invoice of course. There are a great many items stored in the cellars. Strangely, the Mayor's port inspectors have no record of them being landed at Makkathran, and consequently no duty being paid. I'm sure the accountants will soon calculate how much is owed on them. Until then they'll be placed in a city store. Perhaps someone will come forward to claim them and pay the tax.

A reluctant grin appeared on Ivarl's face. 'You're good, Waterwalker.

'Just doing my duty.

'But you have to be good the whole time. And good fortune is a fickle thing.

'Yes. I'm sure Tanamin will agree with that. It was two nights earlier when Edeard had listened to the sickening instructions Ivarl had issued to Harawold on the punishment to be given to Tanamin, who hadn't extorted enough money from his patch in Fiacre district.

Ivarl couldn't cover up the flash of surprise in his mind. When he did veil his emotions he was regarding Edeard with the kind of caution reserved for a cornered fastfox. 'Yes. Very good, I see that now. Are you sure you won't accept my hospitality? Together we can accomplish a great deal.

'There's not much to be accomplished from inside the Trampello mines.

'I see. That's a shame.

'Was there anything else?

'No. Not today.

TWO

By midday the Ellezelin paramilitary capsules streaking across Colwyn City had all taken to using their sirens, producing a constant doppler-mangled cacophony as they rushed between burgeoning trouble spots. Scarlet and azure laser fans would often sweep through the open balcony doors of Araminta's apartment as another one flew across the park outside, accompanying the discordant sound. Araminta scowled as the dazzling light flared across the kitchen area of the living room once more. She'd been making herself a cup of tea from a kettle, while the old culinary unit strove to fabricate the components of a simple chicken sandwich. She cursed, and kicked the base of the stupid unit as another set of thermal error symbols flashed up on its screen. Perhaps the laser light was disturbing its internal systems?

She sighed and shook her head, annoyed with herself for thinking something so silly. The worst thing was just sitting Around doing nothing. Actually no, it's not knowing what to do.

Another capsule screeched overhead. Araminta slammed down the kettle, and stomped over to the open balcony doorway. The capsule had vanished behind the apartment building by the lime she got there, presumably harassing the people in the park, which seemed to have developed into quite a centre for disobedience against the invaders. She would have liked to slam the doorway shut as well, but the glass wall sheet was formflow, so she had to settle for the glass slowly curtaining together. At least when it had become a single sheet again the sound of the sirens did reduce considerably — as it should with the expensive sound-deadening layer she'd added. The doorway had been open all day to give her some sense of connection to the city. It was kind of stupid, yet comforting at the same time. In fact, all she'd been doing was avoiding thinking about the real events. She'd certainly not done any work on the apartment.

Her u-shadow had pulled a steady stream of news out of the Unisphere, all relating to the Void expansion. There were very few hard facts, and far too much speculation and accusation. But her u-shadow was running an adequate filter, supplying her with the basics. Nothing much had changed. The observation team had evacuated Centurion Station. All the shows were playing the images of the base itself collapsing. Of more interest were the enigmatic DF spheres flying into orbit around the star. Commentators in the news studios were busy speculating on exactly what they were capable of; apparently they'd been copied by the Anomine who used them to imprison the Dyson Pair. Now everyone was hoping that they had more aggressive functions than simple force fields, no matter the gigantic scale.

Despite the loss of Centurion Station, a large number of sensor systems out amid the Wall stars were still operational and feeding their data back to the Commonwealth via the tenuous Navy relay. The Void boundary continued to expand, its surface rippling and distending to engulf the star clusters already falling in towards it. That voraciousness was cited by many as having purpose. Which came back squarely to the Second Dreamer and the Skylord.

After the balcony doors clicked shut she sank to her knees on the bare concrete floor. The tears she'd managed to contain all morning threatened to finally emerge. It's too much. No one person can expect to deal with all of this. I can't have put the entire galaxy in peril. I can't.

Her u-shadow reported a new file shotgunning into the Unisphere, passed between each node without restriction by the management routines and given unlimited access to everybody's interface address. It was a live feed to an address code she didn't recognize, but had Earth as its node host.

'Only ANA can achieve this level of coverage, the u-shadow told her.

'Access it, she ordered. If ANA wanted to talk to everybody it must have some words of comfort.

Gore Burnelli was standing on some rocky cliffs, his back to the clear tropical sea beyond. He wore a simple white shirt, his lair hair tousled by the breeze. Grey eyes stared out of a handsome twenty-year-old face, with skin tanned to a dusky gold. He looked directly at Araminta, making her feel incredibly guilty for no reason she could define.

'I doubt anyone out there in the Greater Commonwealth will remember me, he said. 'But I used to be one of the wealthy people who helped form the original Commonwealth. If you check my record you'll see I had a brief moment of fame in the Starflyer War. I hope that what I've done in the past will qualify me for a moment of your time here now; however, this is not about me. I'm speaking to one person alone: the Second Dreamer. I understand that you didn't realize the Skylord would kick off a devourment phase when you spoke to it. I don't blame you. I don't condemn you. And unlike everyone else I'm certainly not hunting you down. On which front, please be warned it's not just Living Dream that's coming for you, a number of other agents are searching, who represent various political factions both here in ANA and other Greater Commonwealth groups.

'Oh great Ozzie, Araminta wailed. Now the tears really were flowing free.

'Everyone is making a lot of demands of you, Gore said. 'I expect you're frightened and uncertain. I also expect you want lo stay out of sight, certainly everything you've done so far Indicates this. I appreciate that. You're coming to terms with what you are, and nobody can help with that. You have a lot of decisions to make, and I don't envy you any of them. If you want to get in touch with me, I'll help in any way I can, that goes without saying. Again, that's not why I am making this appeal. There is one thing that does not require a decision: the Void devourment phase must be stopped. As far as we are aware you are the only one who can currently do this. I say that because someone else is trying to help. Gore took a breath and squared his shoulders, trying to be brave. 'My daughter, Justine, was at Centurion Station when the devourment kicked off. Unlike everyone else there, she didn't head back home. Against all my wishes, my pleas, my hopes, she's aimed her ship directly for the Void. It's one of the secret ultradrive ships you may have heard rumours of. Very fast. Which means that in another day or so she'll arrive at the boundary. Justine's not like me, she's sweet and kind, very much an optimist, all the things to be proud of in our species. She's been involved in diplomatic work for centuries. She's flying alone to the Void in the hope she can talk to the Skylord; she believes that reason will prevail. But first she has to get inside. Humans have done that once before. Inigo and the Waterwalker showed us that. I appeal to you, Second Dreamer, to contact the Skylord one last time, and ask it to let Justine in. That's all, just ask it that one thing, nothing else. You don't have to talk about the devourment phase, or the Pilgrimage. Just give my daughter a chance to try and negotiate with whatever passes for authority in there. Justine is going to fly into the boundary come what may, despite everything I've said to try and stop her, she believes in humanity, that our nature should be placed upon this alien altar and given a chance. She believes in us. I hope, I beg, you will do what you can to give her that chance. Don't let my girl die in vain, I beseech you. If there's anything you need or want, then contact me in complete safety at the code on this file. Please. One last time, help put a stop to what's happening out there. There's not much time left. Help her. Only you can.

Araminta put her hands over her head as the message finished, wanting nothing more than to curl up in a ball and leave the universe altogether. 'Thanks for fucking nothing, she told the haunting memory of Gore. At the same time she felt a tiny lifting of doubt. Maybe this Justine woman can do something. Maybe it's not all down to me after all.

That just left getting in touch with the Skylord without Living Dream and all the others tracking her down. Yeah, that should be dead easy for someone who can't even get a culinary unit to make a sandwich.

* * * * *

In the middle of a desert of dry mud was a house, an igloo of baked sand. It had a wooden door that years ago had been painted dark green. Harsh sunlight and dusty winds had abraded it down to the bare wood, though some flecks of green still persevered in the cracks between the oak boards.

He knew that door. Knew it well. Knew what lay behind.

The sun hung at the apex of the world's sapphire sky, bleaching all colour out of the desert. It was always thus.

He dismounted from the huge Charlemagne just short of the igloo, his plain white robes flowing around him. The deep hood protected his face from the sun's penetrating rays. Somehow, those few steps to the door took for ever. His limbs were fighting an unknown force that resisted every movement. He kept asking himself if he wanted to do this because he eventually realized that the force fighting him was fear. Fear of what waited for him on the other side of the door. He carried on anyway, because in this, as always, he had no choice, no will, no independence. The effort left him trembling from exertion, but eventually the door was in front of him. He raised his hand, placing it palm down on the warm wood, feeling the familiar sand-smoothed grain. Pushed.

The door opened, and darkness spilled out, contaminating the sunlight. It built round him like a fog, and his dread spiked upwards. But the door was open. There was nothing now between him and the person living in the house. Something moved in the shadows, a presence that was reaching out.

'You and your father both had the courage to make the right choice in the end, a voice told him. 'Not that my opinion counts for anything. But I'm glad. I figure I owe you this second chance.

'My father? He lurched forwards—

— the ground crawler lurched again as the front tracks cleared another ice ridge, and the wedge nose tipped down sharply. Aaron shook himself as the real world claimed him back from bedlam, gripping the chair arms, staring out of the slit windscreen. It was profoundly dark outside, midnight beneath clouds that towered five kilometres into the screaming hurricane sky. Headlight beams were clotted by driving snow. The small glimpse of the ground they did allow revealed ice boulders half the size of the ground crawler. Regular bursts of lightning showed the wicked, sharp-edged boulders scattered across the frozen land in all directions without end. Narrow gaps between them were becoming fewer, and had been for the last hour. It was a nightmare geography out there. Their progress was pitiful, and getting worse.

He checked the vehicle's inertial navigation system. In the last two hours they'd travelled a grand total of seven and a quarter kilometres, and very little of that was in a nice straight line forwards. Eleven hours now since the unknown starship fired a Hawking m-sink into Hanko. He was beginning to wish he had the math to work out an accurate timetable for how long it would take the weapon to digest the planet from within. But knowing the exact moment when the continents would implode wasn't going to make the ground crawler go any faster. His early rough estimate of three days was realistic enough.

The crawler's net slowed the tracks, which Aaron perceived first as a change in the constant vibration afflicting the cabin. When he asked it why he was shown a radar sweep. There was a rift in the ground ahead, a vertical drop of over ten metres.

'Lady! Inigo exclaimed as he studied the radar profile; his face was gently shaded by the weak violet light emitted by the two polyphoto strips on the cabin roof. 'It's going to take half an hour to cut our way down that.

'You're the expert, Aaron muttered sourly.

Inigo gave him a tight smile. 'I certainly am. He gripped the manual control stick, and backed up, then activated the forward power blades. They extended out of the nose and began rotating. The ground crawler edged forwards again, and the spinning blades touched the ice. A wide plume of dirty ice granules shot up into the snowstorm. The screech from the blades resonated round the cabin, and the whole vehicle began to shake as they started to dig themselves a track. Inigo steered them carefully, curving round to run parallel to the rift, always descending. The plume reduced visibility to zero. He was relying on the vehicle's sensors and his own field effect scan. The lost messiah must have had some sophisticated filter programs, Aaron decided; his own scan revealed little beyond the crawler's bodywork. The ice they were traversing showed up as a thick unified substance laced with rock and soil, like a haze of interference; yet Inigo was able to discern the structure, knowing when to back off and when to apply pressure.

The noise of the power blades set Aaron's teeth on edge. Its lone was constantly changing as they hit soil, then back into ice. Then the blades hit some kind of rock, and the rasping was so bad he wanted to hit something. When he glanced back at Corrie-Lyn she was pressing her hands over her ears, her teeth bared in a wild grimace of dismay. Inigo adjusted the stick fractionally, curving them away from the dense strata. Rock and lie gravel spewed out sideways, falling in a long arc down the side of the rift. Inigo drove them into the ice again, gouging a wider cut.

So they descended in a series of howling bumps and jolts, treating their own ramp. In the end it took over forty-five minutes to reach the base of the rift. The power blades retracted. Aaron gazed out in dismay at the field of ice boulders which the lightning flares revealed. They were larger than the ones at the lop of the rift, and closer together.

'Crap, he grunted. 'We're never going to get through this.

How far does it extend? If they didn't clear the boulder field in the next couple of hours, they would never make it to the ship before the implosion.

'I don't know, Inigo replied unperturbed. 'We don't exactly have survey maps. He steered the crawler along the base of the rift, looking for an opening.

'You must do!

'Not recent ones. They're all a thousand years out of date; and the surface ice does shift. Slowly, admittedly, but the movement throws up a fresh topography every century or so.

'Shit! Aaron finally did hit something, his fist thudding into the cabin wall. 'We have got to make better time than this.

'I know.

Corrie-Lyn came forward from her seat and slipped her arms around Inigo's neck. The low cabin lighting made her beautiful features deeply sensual. 'You're doing your best, ignore him.

Aaron growled in frustration, and hit the wall again. Back at the Olhava camp, Inigo had finally admitted he did have a private starship hidden away, for emergencies. Aaron's elation at the escape route had quickly cooled as the ground crawler got underway. According to Inigo his ship was safe in a tunnelled out cavern seven hundred kilometres south east of the camp. Aaron had assumed they would make it with almost a couple of days to spare. Then they drove straight into the ice boulder field.

'We always trailblaze through this kind of thing, Inigo told him as Corrie-Lyn rubbed her cheek adoringly against his. 'That's how I got to be so good with the power blades.

'Get better or we die, Aaron said bluntly.

Inigo flashed him a grin, then turned the ground crawler into a small gap. Razor-sharp shards of ice creaked and snapped against the bodywork as they scraped their way through. Aaron winced, convinced they'd wedge themselves in again. They'd done that once before a few hours back. He and Inigo had to go outside and use their biononic field effect to cut the vehicle free. It had felt good using his weapon functions, even on a minimum setting. He was accomplishing something.

The only benefit of the journey was that Corrie-Lyn hadn't touched a drop of alcohol since they started.

'So have you any idea who was in that starship? Inigo asked.

'No. I didn't even realize we were being followed, which is disturbing enough. To track the Artful Dodger you'd need something as good if not better. That kind of hardware is mighty difficult to come by, so it was either ANA or a Faction. But ANA wouldn't use an m-sink like that, and I'm kind of surprised a Faction did.

'No honour among thieves, eh?

'None, Aaron agreed. 'Using an m-sink has the sure taste of desperation to it.

'Hold a mirror up, Corrie-Lyn said. 'It was a ruthless despicable act, slaughtering all those people without warning or reason. The pilot must have been just like you.

'There are people in this universe a lot worse than me.

'That I don't believe.

But it's true. He smiled privately.

'So where were you going to coerce me into going? Inigo asked.

'I'll know when we're safe on the ship.

'Really? That's… interesting.

'It's depraved, Corrie-Lyn said.

'Actually, it's a simple and safe security measure, Aaron told them. 'If I don't know, I can't be forced to reveal it.

'But you do know, she said. 'It's buried somewhere in your subconscious.

'Yes, but I can't get to it unless the circumstances are coming up straight aces.

'You've damaged your own psyche with so much meddling.

'I've told you often before, and I'll enjoy telling you many limes again: I like what I am.

'Oh Lady, now what! Inigo exclaimed as the crawler's net hulled them again. He glanced at the radar screen with its concentric orange bands swirling round like a accelerated orrery. 'That's weird. His grey eyes narrrowed as he squinted through the windscreen. The headlights revealed a white blur of snow, but no boulders. Lightning flashes turned the black night to a leaden smog. There were no discernible shapes ahead of them.

Aaron's field scan revealed the ice had flattened out in front of the crawler's tracks. Then it ended in another sharp-edged rift. He couldn't pick up anything beyond. 'There's nothing out there.

'I think that's the problem.

They both suited up to take a look. Inigo said he didn't want to get the crawler too close to the rift until they knew what they were dealing with. Aaron shrugged and went with it. He didn't like wearing the surface suit — his biononics could produce a good defence against Hanko's foul environment — but it added an extra layer of protection, which his instinct insisted was tin-right thing in a situation with so many unknowns.

The two of them kept close to the headlight beams, leaning into the wind. As they shuffled closer to the edge, Aaron's field scan still couldn't detect anything beyond.

'Where the hell's the ground gone? he demanded. His field scan probed the ice beneath his feet. There were a few centimetres of crisp snow, then clear ice down as far as the scan could reach. It was as though they were on the top of some giant frozen wave.

'Must be a gully of some description, Inigo replied. 'If the pressure is right the ice can fissure instead of throwing up a ridge.

'Great.

'It should close up soon. I've never seen an ice fissure over five hundred metres long. You check that way. And don't go too near the edge.

'Right. Aaron started to walk parallel to the edge, keeping a good three or four metres between him and the drop. He soon came to a flat triangular prominence jabbing out from the verge, which he shuffled along cautiously, feeling the slight stirrings of vertigo. If anywhere would allow him a decent look into the gulf below, it would be here.

He extended his field scan to its maximum, sweeping it through the heavy swirl of snow. Even at full resolution he couldn't detect the other side of the rough fissure. Nor was there any sign of a bottom. He was standing on the brink of some massive abyss. Instinct kicked in, firing up his misgivings. Something Nerina said back at the camp registered. 'Hey, are we— His scan showed him Inigo's field function was switching, reformatting energy currents. His own biononics responded instantaneously, strengthening his integral force field, shielding him from any damage Inigo's outdated systems could possibly inflict. Accelerants rode his nerve paths ready to implement his response. Tactical routines rose out of macrocellular clusters, fusing effortlessly with his thoughts, analysing his situation. That was when he realized just how badly he'd screwed up by trusting Inigo. 'Shiiiit,

Inigo fired the biggest disruptor pulse his biononics could produce. It slammed into the ice a couple of metres short of Aaron's feet. For a moment, the whole prominence fluoresced an elegant jade. As the light faded, a single giant crack appeared with incredible speed, splitting the prominence off the edge of the Asiatic glacier.

Aaron stared in shock at the ruptured ice. Tactics programs rushed to find a counter—

'Sorry, Inigo said simply. The thoughts leaking out of his pa ill motes even proved he meant it. 'But sometimes to do what's right…

The entire prominence split away cleanly. To Aaron's accelerated nervous system it appeared to hang there for some terrible eternity. Then gravity pulled the colossal chunk of ice straight down with Aaron standing at the centre. It began to twist as the edges screeched down the cliff. His force field reconfigured, extending into a twin swept-petal shape—wings that could glide him away. Not good in the midst of this snowstorm, but better than anything else. That was when the vast cataract of avalanching snow triggered by Inigo's shot thundered into him, engulfing the tumbling prominence and him with it.

The whole mass continued to plummet down the mile-high cliff, taking a long time to reach the bottom.

Silverbird arrowed through the Gulf, the immense expanse of ruined stars and tattered ion storms which lay between the dense halo of ancient globular clusters that comprised the Wall stars, and the boundary of the Void itself. Justine was receiving the hysradar and quantum scanner images direct, surrounding herself with the mass structure of the real universe translated into scarlet and turquoise mists. Tiny points of emerald light shone within the shifting cosmic oceans, showing her the supermassive stars which had so far retained their integrity during their long spiral into oblivion. Less than a hundred lightyears ahead of her was the frosty glow of the loop, an orbiting band of supercharged matter ten lightyears across which emitted a galaxy-spanning blaze of X-rays. Beyond that was the awesome black surface of the Void boundary. She watched its topology fluctuate, marvel ling at how ocean-like the waves were, with peaks and troughs ripping about chaotically, stirred by incomprehensible internal storm-forces. Quite often she would see an undulation swell out to reach the elongated plume of a disintegrating star that was still lightmonths away. Phenomenal gravity sucked the matter down into the event horizon with a last devastating flare of ultra-hard radiation, the kind which had powered the loop for a billion years. Even that siren call would end soon. At its current expansion rate the Void would engulf the loop in another week. Then it would just be the Wall and the Raiel DF defences that stood between the boundary and the rest of the galaxy.

Justine felt her body shiver again. It was hard to comprehend the scale of the forces outside. She was feeling very small and alone.

'Dad?

'Still here, darling. The relay is holding. Big Bronx cheer for the old Navy techs who put it together.

'We left the last known sensor systems behind five minute's ago. The link might not last much longer.

'Course it will, angel. This was meant to be.

'Yeah, right.

'I'm looking at the access figures for the Unisphere. You've got over half of humanity looking over your shoulder right now.

'Hi there, half of humanity, she said brittley.

'You're doing fine. And I'm in deep shit with ANA for publically admitting there's such a thing as ultradrive.

'Ha! You're always in trouble.

'True. Without me, lawyers would just wither away and die. They think of me as their messiah. Remember when we got caught planting the Florida estate with alien vines?

'Hell yes. The UFN Environmental Commissioners went apeshit with us.

'There are banks we own on the External worlds still paying off that fine.

Justine barked a laugh. Drew down a juddering breath. She desperately wanted out of her ancient body with all its silly biochemical-derived fright. Anyone would think her personality was genuinely scared. 'Any sign the Second Dreamer accessed your appeal?

'Not yet. I expect he'll be talking to the Skylord quite soon now. After all, he'll have to face me if he doesn't start getting his ass in gear. Isn't that right, Second Dreamer?

'Now Dad, she chided.

'Yeah yeah.

'I think I'm going to skim round the loop. That radiation is strong enough to slice through the Silverbird's force fields as if they were tissue paper. Can you believe the figures I'm getting.

'You'll be quite safe in hyperspace.

'I know, but…

'Whatever makes you comfortable, angel.

Justine instructed the smartcore to fly to galactic south of the loop. 'That's odd. The sensors were picking up an artificial signature over forty lightyears behind her. She focused on the origin, which the smartcore displayed as two amber circles. 'Uh, Dad, are you getting this?

Gore took a moment to answer. 'Yes.

'Whatever they are, they're travelling ftl.

'See that.

'I didn't know there was anyone else flying round this part of the galaxy. Tabulated data flowed up into her exovision. 'Christ, they're massive. A wild thought surfaced. 'Do you think they're Skylords? she asked eagerly.

'No, darling, I don't. They're bigger than that. And that's an interception course.

'Oh. Her mood dropped fast. 'The Raiel. And they're fast, too. Faster than Silverbird. Just. It would be touch and go if she reached the boundary ahead of them. 'I don't suppose they're here to escort me in safely.

'I'm calling Qatux right now. He'll sort this out.

'Okay, Dad.

The external sensor visualization flashed white for a microsecond, as if a lightning bolt had zipped through it. Once it cleared, there was an ominous translucent lavender shell emerging where the Raiel ships were, expanding rapidly. Secondary data streams showed her the anomaly was centred on a mass point the size of Earth's moon that had been curving in towards the Void on a ten million year journey to its death. Had been. It had vanished, converted directly to exotic energy which was now flowing through hyperspace.

'Oh FUCK, Justine yelled. Silverbird strengthened every defensive system it had.

The hyperspace shockwave struck the little ultradrive ship with the force of a wayward dinosaur. Justine screamed as she was flung out of the couch, crashing into the forward bulkhead. Alarms shrieked back at her. A multitude of exovision schematics turned amber and red.

* * * * *

The crowd of anti-invasion protesters down in the park gasped in unison as the Silverbird juddered, then let out a long 'Ohooo, of wonder and relief. Araminta couldn't help but join in, thankful Justine had survived the third shockwave propagated by the pursuing Raiel warships and was now picking herself up off the cabin floor again. It was a sound which was replicated right across Colwyn City and beyond. A long way beyond.

She slipped in through the apartment block's underground garage entrance. The door was still open a couple of metres, not wide enough to admit a capsule, but sufficient for her to take her trike out. She'd deactivated the mechanism as she left, opening up the little control box and physically disconnecting the wiring. Now she plugged the coloured cables back into their blocks. The door slid shut behind her, and she hurried through the near-deserted concrete cave to the lifts.

'You okay? Gore asked.

'Bastards! Justine replied shakily. 'What, this isn't hard enough already?

Araminta sank back against the cool metal wall of the lift, feeling the way Justine looked. She'd driven round for an hour on the trike before parking it in a public bay at the Tala mall. Now there was nothing to prove she was at the apartment block — it was the best cover she could think of. The walk back to the Bodant district had taken forty minutes, during which the Raiel warships had started blowing up small moons to try and stop Justine. Everyone accessed that. It made her kind of conspicuous; she was just about the only person moving on Colwyn's streets.

'You're doing fine, Gore assured his daughter. 'Just fine.

Araminta used her old override code to unlock the door to Danal's apartment. Neither he nor Mareble were in. Presumably I hey were out partying with the occupying army, she thought resentfully. The bare structure of the place had just been finished when Araminta handed it over. Since then, Mareble had moved in a few basic furnishings. Araminta gave the cooker a critical glare, the big metal thing looked ridiculously primitive. It had taken Mr Bovey a long time to find it for her, and installing it had been a nightmare.

In Araminta's exovision, Justine was climbing back into her chair, which folded protectively around her. 'Main systems are functional. Drive units have reduced capacity. These energy bursts are stressing a lot of components. I guess they're trying to wear me down.

Araminta crept over to the balcony windows, and peered out across the park. There were several Ellezelin capsules hanging above the encircling road. They were all stationary; like everyone else their occupants were captivated by the chase thirty thousand lightyears away. Below them, the crowd stared up into the heavens whose stars were smeared by the weather dome. She nodded in satisfaction.

'They're firing again, Justine yelped. 'Oh Christ.

The Silverbird shuddered violently. Araminta gritted her teeth, feeling the huge tremor of anticipation in the gaiafield. More sections of the ship reported overloads. The speed fell off as the drive reconfigured its energy manipulation functions around degraded components. Justine changed course, streaking into the loop, the shortest distance to the barrier. Both Raiel warships followed unerringly. Closing the gap.

Araminta pulled a big sky-blue cushion out of a nest pile and into the middle of the living room. She was annoyed to see the ebony-wood parquet had been stripped back to the bare wood. Didn't Mareble understand how difficult it was to get the varnish application correct? The work that had gone into cleaning the little wooden blocks!

She sat down on the cushion and crossed her legs, banishing such negative thoughts.

'Good strategy, darling, Gore said. 'There aren't many planets inside the loop.

Araminta retrieved Likan's program from her storage lacuna, feeling her mind finally settle. It was a risk using this apartment, but she wasn't sure how good Living Dream was at tracking people through the gaiafield. The day Danal had moved in he'd confided to her that he was helping with the search for the Second Dreamer, and how the confluence nests were being altered somehow to facilitate that. So she certainly didn't want to be in her own place when she did this, just in case they were accurate enough to fix the exact location. And they might just think Danal's apartment was some kind of false reading. She didn't know anywhere else she could go. Other than to Mr Bovey's house, but that would expose him to the paramilitaries, which she could never do.

The shadowy spectres of sensation that lurked within her subconscious expanded outwards. She let her attention swim across the myriad thoughts it contained. Drifting. Content in a way the program alone could never kindle.

Most of the thoughts she could ignore. Some were intriguing. One had a mental signature she knew, associated with a dark tone that almost made her shy away. Instead, she concentrated.

'My Lord, Ethan was pleading. 'Hear us please.

He was calling with all his mental strength, amplified by countless confluence nests, directing his appeal outwards into the infinite. Wrong., she mused from her lofty Olympian distance. The Skylord is not beyond us, it is within.

She drifted further, devoid of urgency.

'If you don't call them off I will personally rip your fucking arkship apart molecule by molecule with all of you in it, Gore was yelling. 'You think the Void is a Bad Thing? Do you, huh? You believe that? Because let me tell you: it is your mommy with her titty out for you to suck on compared to me.

Araminta couldn't help grinning. Now that's the kind of father I would have liked. Out in the park, people were cheering. A cry taken up across hundreds of planets. The gaiafield filled with determination and support, the raw emotion of billions, swelling the sense of unification to near ecstasy. Go Gore, humanity whooped. Araminta added her blessing, a whisper lost in the multitude.

'I can do nothing, Qatux protested. 'They are warrior Raiel. Not our kind, not any longer.

'Find a fucking way!

Araminta lifted herself away from the turmoil, drifting towards a strand of familiar quiet thought. Opening herself in greeting. The nebulas of the Void emerged from darkness to glimmer spectacularly around her. Half of space was a gauzy splash of aquamarine with a few distant stars shining though. She recognized it as Odin's Sea where a Skylord coasted between two of the scarlet promontories, spikes of whorled gases lightyears long, swelling to buds big enough to contain a globular cluster. And here, the thoughts of what once was mingled with more purposeful notions. An awareness wove through this space, not conscious, but knowing purpose.

Silverbird burst out of the loop and streaked towards the final implacable barrier. All around it, broken stars sleeted inwards, shedding the glowing husks of the planets they had once birthed as if they were an encumbrance during the final tumultuous plunge to extinction.

'Oh God, here we go again, Justine whimpered. Ten lightyears behind her a gas-giant imploded. Hyperluminal quantum distortions burst out from its vanishing point.

The Silverbird dropped out of hyperspace, flying free in spacetime that no human would recognize. It was a dark universe inside the Wall stars. Thick braids of dust and gas shielded the light of the galactic core behind the starship. Ahead, few photons escaped the macrogravity cloak of the Void as suns sank through the event horizon. A lurid vermilion band shimmered across space, the swirl of ion clouds enraged by the loop's fatal discharge, illuminating the fuselage like the devil's own gaze. Radiation alarms howled in fright as the force field started to collapse. The fuselage blistered.

'One of us comes, Araminta said. 'See?

The distortion shockwave was almost unnoticeable in real space as it flashed past. Dead streamers of atoms were stirred briefly by the unquiet force leaking back out of the quantum interstices. Silverbird powered back into hyperspace, smouldering from radiation burns.

'You, Ethan exclaimed.

The Skylord resonated with interest. 'I still search for you. The nucleus aches with longing.

'I know. You must stop that. Please welcome our emissary. She approaches you.

'Where? I sense you are so far away.

'I am. She is close to you now. Feel for her. She bleeds emotion as do we all. Guide her as you should. Open your boundary.

'The Heart will welcome you.

The two Raiel warships were closing on the Silverbird. Justine's sensor display showed her another gas giant sized mass barely five lightyears away. If they targeted that it would be the end. The Silverbird's ultradrive was struggling to maintain acceleration now.

'Hurry. Please, Araminta implored.

The Skylord radiated satisfaction as it receded.

'I thank you, Gore said. 'Whoever you are.

* * * * *

Justine sank back into the couch, her mind fully open to the gaiafield, letting every emotion pour fourth. Hopes. Fears. Everything she was.

* * * * *

Ahead of the Silverbird, the Void boundary changed. A vast circular wave rippled out, creating a crater ten lightyears across. From its centre a smooth cone of pure blackness rose up towards the starship.

Justine regarded the exovision images in surprise. She was gripping the couch arms tight, her skin slick with sweat. 'I'm not to sure—

Behind her, the Raiel warships slowed, allowing the Silverbird 'to race onwards. - this is such —

Al fifteen lightyears high the cone stopped expanding.

' — a good —

Its apex opened like a flower, petals of infinite night pealing back. Exquisite nebula-light shone out into the Gulf.

Silverbird passed across the threshold, into the Void.

' — after all.

The cone closed up. It sank back into the now quiescent boundary. Silverbird's communication link to the Navy relay ended. Both Raiel warships executed tight curves and headed back towards the Wall.

* * * * *

'Please, talk to us, Ethan appealed. 'The Skylord has anointed you as our' Second Dreamer. We await you. We need you. He was given no reply.

* * * * *

Araminta slipped out of Danal's apartment, and tiptoed across the vestibule to her own. Outside, a brash dawn light was lapping against the weather dome. The crowd was cheering ecstatically. That felt good.

'Well whadda you know, I saved the universe. Araminta grinned wildly at the ridiculous knowledge, then yawned. Being a hero was actually quite exhausting. She sank down into the big old armchair with its strangely lumpy cushions. Just five minutes' rest.

* * * * *

Cheriton McOnna didn't like the 'in character' clothes Beckia had produced for him out of the replicator on board Elvin's Payback. Really didn't. Nothing wrong with the touch of them, a cotton shirt, wool-lined waistcoat with brass buttons, and trousers that were like suede but a great deal softer. No, it was the colours and style, the shirt's lace-up front, its grey-green colour which was more like a stain than a dye, and the odd tight cut of the black trousers. He plain refused to wear the felt ha I with its flamboyant green and blue feathers; although he reluctantly agreed to carry it after Beckia got all stroppy. It wasn't good to get Beckia stroppy.

She'd been right, of course. As soon as he walked into the Confluence nest building on Daryad Avenue in the centre of town, he fitted in with the Ellezelin workforce. Security was strong around the building, an old brick cube with dark arching windows. Colwyn's three confluence nests were the first priority for the occupying forces. But Liatris McPeierl had done his job well, infiltrating a complete legend for Cheriton, including DNA. When he walked into the airy marble-floored lobby he was told to put his hand on a sensor pedestal while three armed and armoured guards watched him cautiously. The building's new net cleared him, and they waved him on. He gave them a cheery smile, backed up with a contented emanation into the gaiafield.

The nest itself was housed on the fourth floor in a sterile chamber which took up half of the available floorspace. He reported for duty to Dream Master Yenrol in the overseer's office, which looked out into the nest chamber through a glass partition. Normally, the office was only occupied a few hours each day when the overseer or their assistant ran a six hourly assessment to ensure the nest was operating smoothly. Now there were seven technicians all struggling for elbow space as they installed banks of new hardware, while on the other side of the glass more technicians were blending fresh bioneural clusters with the original nest.

'What's your field? Yenrol asked. He was both agitated and puzzled. Cheriton's late assignment coupled with the pressure to get the job done was making him very twitchy.

'Pattern definition, Cheriton replied equitably. 'The routines I've developed will help isolate the Second Dreamer's thoughts within the gaiafield. It should give us a stronger source to trace.

'Good, Yenrol said. 'Okay, great. Start installing the routines. He'd turned back to a half-completed hardware unit before Cheriton got a chance to reply.

'Okay then, Cheriton mumbled, keeping his gaiafield emission a level flow of eagerness and enthusiasm. He found a free console seat, and nodded to the man in the next seat.

'Welcome to the eye, his new colleague said. 'I'm Danal.

'Glad to be here, Cheriton said. 'What do you mean: eye?

'Of the storm.

Cheriton grinned. 'This is the quiet part?

'Exactly!

Danal, it turned out, had been on Viotia for some time now. He and Mareble had come in anticipation of being close to the Second Dreamer. 'We wanted to be here when he revealed himself, Danal admitted. 'I've been upgrading nest sensitivity since we arrived in the hope our Dream Masters can locate him. He gave Yenrol a guilty glance, stifling his gaiafield emissions for a moment. 'I wasn't expecting this, he confided.

'I know what you mean, Cheriton said, all sympathy. 'I was praying to the Lady that Ethan would be elected Cleric Conservator, but I didn't think anything like our presence here would be necessary.

Danal gave an awkward shrug, and got back to work. Cheriton continued loading in the routines he'd concocted. They did perform the recognition function, but in reverse, so that the nest would develop a mild blind spot should it receive any thoughts originating from the Second Dreamer. It would inform Cheriton first before reverting to the advertised function.

The modification team's frantic work stalled as Justine's madcap flight swamped the Unisphere.

'She's so close, Danal said in awe as the Silverbird's sensors revealed the undulating surface of the Void. Then everyone winced as the Raiel transformed the second moon into a hyperluminal quake.

'How are they doing that? Cheriton murmured, fascinated by the level of extraordinary sophisticated violence involved.

'Who cares? Danal said. 'The Void can resist their devilry. It has for a million years. That's all that matters.

Cheriton raised an eyebrow. It took a lot of self-control not to leak his dismay at the man's bigotry into the gaiafield. 'Let's hope Justine's ship can withstand it, too.

'She's not a believer. She's an ANA creature.

'She's human, Cheriton said. 'That means she should be able to get inside. Somehow.

'Ah. I hadn't thought of that.

'Please, Yenrol entreated the modification team. 'Keep working. If the Second Dreamer is going to show himself, it will be tonight.

Danal flashed Cheriton a shamefaced smile.

* * * * *

Oscar hadn't expected things to happen quite this fast. He should have known better. If the Starflyer War had taught him nothing else, it was that events ruled people, not the other way round.

So here he was encased in a stiff paramilitary armour suit, sitting halfway down the passenger section of an Ellezelin police capsule, floating over the Cairns. Beckia was sitting on the bench next to him, while Tomansio was forward in the command seat. The capsules were designed to hold fifteen paramilitaries. However, its original occupants were now resting in a drug-induced coma back in the Bootel & Leicester warehouse, so at least he had plenty of room to stretch out.

Like the rest of the Commonwealth, they were accessing Justine's mad dash through the Gulf.

'The welcome team has just stepped up to active status, Liatris reported; he had stayed behind in the Elvin's Payback to monitor the occupying forces and provide Unisphere support. 'Everyone thinks that the Second Dreamer will intervene for Justine.

'He didn't after Gore's appeal, Oscar said.

'The Raiel should give things a degree of urgency, Beckia said. 'I agree with Living Dream, if it's going to happen it'll happen tonight.

Oscar shrugged, which didn't come off well in his armour.

'Did you know Gore and Justine? Tomansio asked.

'I think I met her once, some senior officer function on High Angel. Everyone was trying to chat her up.

'Including you? Beckia teased.

'No, I was aiming for the ones she turned down. Rejection always leaves you vulnerable to a quick bout of cheap meaningless sex.

'Ozzie, but you're dreadful.

'Anything from Cheriton? Tomansio asked.

'Nothing since his last check in, Liatris reported. 'Nobody questioned his appointment to Yenrol's staff. He's installed his routines in the nest.

'Is he wearing his hat? Beckia asked innocently.

Oscar couldn't help the smile creeping on to his mouth. That had been quite an argument.

'I'll find out next time, Liatris promised.

'What have you got for us on the welcome team? Tomansio asked.

'All deeply loyal Living Dream followers; it doesn't look like Phelim fancied contracting out for this job. They're on secondment from the Makkathran2 cabinet security office.

'Ethan's private bodyguards, Tomansio declared. 'What.m-their enrichments?

'Very heavy duty weapons, and they're accelerated up to at least our standard. But I don't think they have biononics; there's no record in any file I can find.

'Okay, thank you. Keep deep mining, I want everything you've got on them.

'Will do. Files coming over.

Oscar's u-shadow told him it had received the heavily encrypted files. When he scrutinized them he couldn't help a sharp intake of breath. The welcome team that Councillor Phelim had put together to interdict the Second Dreamer were carrying the kind of firepower he'd thought exclusive to members of the Knights Guardian. They were also extremely devout. Phelim hail given them complete authority over all the invading forces to accomplish their goal. 'We need to be quick, he murmured.

'That we do, Tomansio agreed. 'I wouldn't want to be caught in the act by this lot.

'I bet they have got biononics, Beckia said. 'They'll justify it by saying it will help bring about the Dream. Their kind always does.

'I didn't know Living Dream disapproved of biononics, Oscar said.

'Oh yes. Nothing like the Protectorate, though; biononics aren't quite a sacrilege, they simply don't have any place in the Void. Most people believe they won't work in there anyway.

'Why?

'Because there was never any functioning technology on Querencia. The most sophisticated thing the Waterwalker ever encountered was the machine gun. And that's purely mechanical. There was no electricity, no genetics, no biononics. Given the humans who landed, their ship would have had access to the most advanced technology and information base the Commonwealth could provide, it is inconceivable that their new society couldn't even make a battery. They certainly know their chemistry and medicine, even astronomy. Something stopped them from following the electromechanical route.

'The internal structure of the Void, Oscar mused.

'Quite. Whatever the quantum structure is that permits true mental powers, it must also block electricity.

'That's ridiculous. You can't stop current flowing, that implies a whole level of atomic reactions would cease to exist. There wouldn't be any stars.

'The Silfen paths mess with human hardware-based technology, Tomansio said.

'That's direct interference generated by their paths.

'All I'm saying is that it appears there's something inimical to rift ironies in the Void.

'The original colony ship survived to land on Querencia.

'And the Living Dream is still arguing if it landed or crashed, Beckia said. 'The interference with electronics could come directly from the Heart itself, like some kind of overlord making sure civilization doesn't rise above a certain level.

'What the hell would anyone go to so much trouble making the Void in the first place just so they can use it to keep sentient species as pets?

'No idea, she said merrily. The firstlife are alien, remember, they think differently.

Oscar gave up with an irritable wave of his hand. 'All right, so thanks to the whole firstlife zookeeper theory, the welcome team are unlikely to have biononics.

'That's about it, yeah, Tomansio said.

'Either way, Beckia said. 'We don't want to go head to head if we can help it.

'Right.

'Liatris, can you get us assigned to the welcome team back up, please, Tomansio asked.

'Way ahead of you. Your assignment should be coming through in a couple of minutes.

'Thank you.

Oscar drew a sharp breath as the Raiel warships obliterated a gas-giant. 'Jesus H Christ, give the poor girl a break. The Silverbird dropped back into real space. Oscar grimaced at the radiation battering its force fields, his memory flipping back to the fight for Hanko when he'd captained the Dublin. There were a lot of parallels. MorningLightMountain's ships had used exotic energy blasts to smack the Dublin about. And at half a million kilometres above the surface, their force field had only just withstood the star's radiation. All that was nothing compared to the hell Silverbird was now enduring. Oscar couldn't help the burst of encouragement pouring out of his mind and into the gaiafield, as if prayer alone could make a difference.

Justine powered back into hyperspace.

'Good tactic, Oscar said approvingly. Another part of his mind was dwelling on the fact that the Elvin's Payback was the same type of ship as Silverbird. We could be out there doing that.

'Stand by, Cheriton said on the ultrasecure link. 'The Second Dreamer is making contact with the Skylord.

'Where is he? Tomansio growled out. 'Armour active, please. Oscar, do exactly as we tell you, clear?

'Yes. He just managed not to add 'sir'.

'Haven't got his position yet, Cheriton said. 'My routines are still fudging the nest for us.

Oscar opened his mind wide to the gaiafield.

'—close to you now. Feel for her, the Second Dreamer was imploring.

'Here we go, Cheriton said. 'First fix is the Bodant district.

'En route, Tomansio said, and pushed the capsule round in a hundred and eighty degree curve above the dark river. Viotia's dawn sun shone into the capsule through the forward section of the transparent fuselage.

'Ah crap, the rest of the nests are focusing on the origin, Cheriton said. 'I thought they'd take longer.

Tomansio pushed their speed up. 'Ozzie! How long have we got?

Thirty thousand lightyears away, the Void began to extend out towards the Silverbird.

'If it screws with technology is she going to be all right when she's inside? Oscar asked.

'Let's just concentrate on the job you've given us, shall we? Beckia chided. She was activating her armour. The helmet visor rippled shut.

'He's near the edge of the park, Cheriton told them. 'The Dream Masters are pulling out some very precise coordinates. Damn, they're good. Sorry guys, you're not going to make it. The welcome team is being given his location.

'Shit, Tomansio reducing their speed. 'It'll look suspicious if we arrive a couple of seconds before them, and that's all the time we've got.

'What's plan B? Oscar asked.

'Snatch him away from the welcome team, but that's going to be difficult. This is all happening too fast. I wanted to be properly embedded in the occupation forces here before we moved to this phase.

'Kill the wormhole, Beckia said. 'We can use Elvin's Payback to intercept the welcome team in interstellar space when they ship the Second Dreamer back to Ellezelin.

'That would give us a better chance, Oscar said. 'That ship's a damn sight better than anything Living Dream will have.

'We don't know that, Tomansio said. 'And it would take a lot of aggression to take out the wormhole.

'I could go through and do it, Liatris insisted.

'They'd know exactly what happened, and why, Tomansio said. 'This is looking like we'll have to switch operations to Ellezelin itself. Oh, here we go, deployment orders from the welcome team. It's an apartment building.

'Something wrong here, Cheriton said. 'One of my new colleagues Danal is having a fit. That apartment block is where he lives. As best we can determine the Second Dreamer is actually in his own apartment.

'Ah hah, everybody might just be underestimating the Second Dreamer, after all, Tomansio said. 'Good for him.

'And for us, Beckia agreed.

'He's going to have to get out of there quick, Oscar said. He was viewing an exoimage map of Colwyn. Nine cruisers were converging on Bodant Park. Five had orders to establish a secure ground perimeter. Two were assigned to provide air cover. The rest, including theirs, were to back up the welcome team inside.

He glanced down as they passed over the bright illuminum buildings of a marina, then on across the park. There were thousands of people spread across the grass, still cheering and jumping up and down with glee as their all-night vigil was rewarded. A real party atmosphere had developed and the pull it exerted through the gaiafield was intoxicating.

The capsule carrying the welcome team roared overhead, barely subsonic and decelerating hard. Up ahead, the glass pillar corners of the target apartment block gleamed with a purple and blue iridescence, naively signalling its position. The welcome team capsule circled it possessively, trailing a thin vapour trail. Happy people down in the park frowned upwards at the boorish intrusion. Dismay and resentment appeared in the gaiafield like necrotic sunspots in an otherwise healthy corona.

'Oh great, Oscar grunted as more and more celebrating citizens became indignant and aggrieved. 'That'll help.

'They don't care, Tomansio said. 'This whole planet doesn't matter to them. All they're interested in is finding the Second Dreamer.

'I wonder what he's like, Oscar said they slowed to hover above the strip of well maintained gardens in front of the block.

'Neurotic, Beckia said. 'Got to be.

'Smart and scared, Tomansio said. 'Which makes him dangerous to Living Dream.

The rest of the capsules assigned to support the welcome team arrived. 'This is Major Honilar, the welcome team commander announced. 'Perimeter squad, establish yourselves immediately. No one in or out. Janglepulse anyone who attempts to cross your line. Custody support squad, seal off the ground floor and shut down the lifts. Use the stairwell to isolate each floor. Now listen up: I want to make very sure you all understand this: there is to be no lethal weapons usage at all. The Second Dreamer is in there, and he must not be harmed. If you encounter any problem, for example if he is using a force field and tries to break through, call us. We will deal with him. I don't want your dirty hands on him.

'Yes sir, Tomansio replied as he directed their capsule down mi to the garden. The welcome team's capsule was planting itself nil the roof next to the golden crystal dome containing the spa.

'What do we do? Oscar asked as the door expanded and he stepped out on to a border of fuchsia bushes, his boots crushing I he white and scarlet flowers into the loam.

'Exactly as we were told, Tomansio said. 'And remember, don't use your biononic field function. I know it's superior to anything in these armour suits, but the welcome team will detect it'.

'Okay. They joined the rest of the custody support troops as they marched into the ground floor lobby. Behind them, the perimeter squad started to push back the first batch of angry citizens who'd arrived from the park.

'Danal has just been arrested, Cheriton told them. 'Two officers from cabinet security are hauling him off right now. He's not a happy man.

'That must be a deliberate distraction, Tomansio said.

'Yeah, but by who? Beckia said. 'The Second Dreamer or another bunch like us?

The lobby was filled with contractors' equipment and caskets piled high with rubbish. Bright temporary lighting on a metal frame cast strong shadows.

'The welcome team have taken command of the apartment block's net, Cheriton said. 'Hang on, I'm assessing the results from their scrutineers.

Tomansio led Beckia and Oscar into the concrete stairwell. More rubbish had been casually tipped off the floors above forming a heap of dusty debris at the bottom of the stairs in tin-basement. A couple of paramilitaries went down to investigate the garage.

'According to the net there are about thirty people currently in residence, Cheriton said. 'The whole damn place is being redeveloped. The fourth floor only has four people registered I'm two apartments. Danal and Mareble, and a married couple Someone called Araminta is refurbishing the remaining three on that level. Mining her now.

Oscar hurried up the concrete stairs. The long line of suited paramilitaries were making a lot of noise as they trooped up with him. Instructions relayed from Honilar assigned six of them to each floor. Oscar was seriously impressed with Liatris when he, Tomansio and Beckia were given the fourth floor.

They emerged into the vestibule to find all the apartment doors broken open and two of the welcome team standing guard in full military armour suits. Oscar could just see through the doorway into apartment three, where the terrified occupants were in the middle of the big living room. A man and woman: him in a pair of shorts, her in a long nightshirt. Standing side side, their arms raised as another of the welcome team covet them with a large gun. She was shaking and crying, while her partner was trying to be resolute. The way his leg muscles were trembling betrayed him more than any gaiafield emission.

Major Honilar came out of Danal's apartment. 'No sign him. He couldn't have got out of the building, he didn't have time. I want every resident on every floor in custody and taken to our headquarters. Search and scan each apartment, make sure you have everyone. He turned and went back into Danal's apartment.

'Pair up, Tomansio said. 'Take an apartment each.

Oscar accompanied Tomansio as they went into apartment number four. He scanned round with his suit's sensors, resenting how slow and restricted they were compared to a biononic field scan. You're spoilt, he told himself. The suit didn't detect any body-size thermal signatures. The apartment was half-way through refurbishment. Several inactive bots were lined up in the living room. New cables and pipes were laid out along one wall. Junked utility fittings were stacked up by the door. Crates and boxes with BOVEY'S BUILDING SUPPLY MACROSTORE printed a round them were waiting to be unpacked. Some furniture had been left, a coffee table that was now badly scuffed, with several mugs on top, waiting to be washed. An ancient couch with a matching armchair that had odd lumps in its cushioning.

His u-shadow was displaying the reports from the other squads, who were busy rounding up the residents on other floors. So far, their identities matched their files.

'In here, Tomansio said, using their secure link. He was standing in the doorway to a bedroom. The bed itself was a bare mattress with a big sleeping bag crumpled on top. Four suitcases were lined up along a wall; one was open revealing a collection of woman's clothes. The small dresser was swamped by hair styling tools and membrane scale cases.

'Not listed as lived in, Oscar said.

'Depends what lists you check. Liatris, run another search on Araminta. Has she sold this apartment?

'I'm on it.

While Tomansio checked the other two bedrooms Oscar went into the main bathroom. The floor had been stripped back to I ho bare concrete, as had the walls. A brand new carved stone bath cuboid was sitting in the middle. Halfway up the wall behind it, the stub of the original cold water feed pipe jutted out of the concrete, its valve dripping into a plastic bucket beneath. The old toilet bowl was still plumbed in. A big hot water tank stood in one corner, already boxed in by the struts of a false wall, just awaiting the cover boards which were stacked in front of it. A maze of pipe work was strewn round its base. Components for a spore shower were lying ready for assembly.

'Nothing, he told Tomansio.

'The other bedrooms are empty.

Oscar found him behind the living room's kitchen bar. The old culinary unit had been removed to stand on the ground, though the nutrient feed pipes were still plumbed in. A kettle and a microwave were sitting on the scratched marble work surface. His thermal scan showed him the kettle's temperature was above ambient. 'This place has been used recently, he muttered.

'We need to talk to her, Tomansio said. 'If anyone can tell us who's been in and out of these apartments, it's her.

'That shouldn't be too difficult, Oscar said. 'We know who she is. Finding her will be easy for Liatris.

'Yeah. Tomansio's sensors swept round one last time. 'Grab something from her bedroom, just so we can run a DNA verification that she's the one living here. Then we'd better get back and help with rounding up the rest of the suspects.

'Poor bastards, Oscar said as he picked up a small scale applicator brush. 'What do you think Honilar will do with them?

'Good question. How do you prove you're not the Second Dreamer? It's not as if there's physical evidence. I guess if he doesn't get a confession they'll use a memory read.

Oscar shuddered. 'That isn't exactly going to endear them to the Second Dreamer. They need him to help them get into the Void.

'Oscar, face it, with today's medical techniques you can make someone do just about anything you want.

'Medical techniques?

'That's what they started out as.

'I suppose you know how to do that?

'We all had training in that area, yes.

Despite the heavy armour suit with its perfect insulation, Oscar suddenly felt cold.

* * * * *

Paula had rarely experienced a pang of deja vu as strong as the one that hit her when the stained glass door opened and she walked into the entrance hall. And she hadn't even been to the old building before. She walked past the empty concierge desk and stared at the glass cage lift. It was the age of everything around her that was generating that weird sensation tickling the back of her mind. According to the Daroca City Council files the interior was perfectly authentic, exactly as it had been during the Starflyer War. She wasn't going to disagree, as someone who had lived through those times she could feel the decor was right.

The lift took her up to the fifth floor, and she walked into Troblum's penthouse apartment. On the trip over from the spaceport she'd accessed Lieutenant Renne Kampasa's ancient Directorate files on the one time she'd visited — ANA had to deep access the memory. With the file came a note that Troblum had requested access to that same file a hundred years ago, along with associated forensic reports.

His restoration work was excellent, Paula acknowledged as she walked into the huge open plan lounge. The balcony had a magnificent view out over the Caspe River, with the rest of Daroca filling in the background.

It didn't take her long to establish there wasn't anything useful in the apartment, and all Troblum's personal files had boon wiped from the building net. The only mild exception was in the bedrooms, each of which inexplicably had their closets full of girls' clothes. Troblum's own clothes, comprising three ageing toga suits and his unpleasant underwear, were stuffed into a chest of drawers in the master bedroom. For a moment Paula wondered if the dresses belonged to Troblum's girlfriend. She raised an eyebrow when she took out a leather designer miniskirt. It might be slightly prejudiced of her to think it, but what would a girl with a figure to wear such an item see in Troblum? Then she recognized the label, one she hadn't seen for over seven hundred years, and realized that the skirt was also Starflyer War vintage style. She let out a whistle of admiration; he'd even reproduced the girls' wardrobe as best he could.

Now that is true obsession.

Paula started going through the other apartments in the ancient converted factory while her u-shadow accessed the building's net to analyse the remaining files. It was the largest apartment on the third floor which drew her attention. The others were all relatively authentic reproductions, but this one had been modified again. All the internal walls had been removed, and the resulting chamber sealed against the outside atmosphere with a sustainer membrane and clinical-grade air filters. Rows of heavy benches ran the entire length; each one equipped with a series of data nodes and high voltage power sockets. She could see the outlines where objects had once rested. They must have been there for decades to make any kind of impression on the stainless steel surface. The net subsection for the apartment had also been thoroughly wiped.

'Three courier capsules were requisitioned to collect items from the building around the time Troblum disappeared, her u-shadow reported.

'What items?

'Unknown. They were stored in stabilized cases.

'Ah, Paula said. 'I bet it was a collection. Most likely Starflyer War memorabilia. Stubsy Florae often procured historic relics for clients. Where were the cases taken?

'The capsules made three separate trips made to the city spaceport, they were collected by different commercial ships registered in the External worlds. No record of their ultimate destination.

'It was to Florae' She knew it. That's why Troblum was then; to pick it up. And it would have meant a great deal to him. That can only mean he was planning to leave the Commonwealth entirely. She opened a link to ANA. 'Troblum was more scared than I realized.

'Marius does that to people.

'Yes. But there was something else. Remember what he told us when he first made contact. He had something that I would understand, and his mania is the Starflyer War. A time I am familiar with.

'That hardly narrows it down.

'Something else does, Paula said. All she could see was that figure ascending into its ship amid the ruins of Florae's villa. A slight person. That wiggle of the hips, a taunt, a couldn't-care-less contempt. None of today's agents and representatives had that kind of attitude, not even the Knights Guardian. They all prided themselves on their steely professionalism. 'I have a bad feeling about this.

'What feeling?

'I have one last trip to make. I'll tell you after that.

'Can't you tell me now?

'No. Believe it or not, I'd be embarrassed if I'm wrong. You'll think I'm obsessive. I have to know for myself.

'How intriguing. As you wish.

'Are you making any progress on mining Troblum's life for me?

'Yes. In many ways he is an odd person, especially for a Higher. I have a reasonably complete timeline for you. It has some suspicious gaps, and he even served on a scientific mission for the Navy.

'Really. Paula's u-shadow received the file. She scanned the contents list in her exovision; one of the more recent items attracted her. 'A presentation to the Navy about the Anomine and the Dyson Pair barrier generators? And Kazimir himself was there. I'd like a summary of that, please.

'Of course.

'Thanks, I'll review it on my way back to Earth.

'You're coming here?

'Yes, this little problem of mine will only take a moment to confirm. I'll be there in an hour.

* * * * *

Major Honilar rounded up thirty three people from the apartment block, and shipped them back to the security headquarters that were set up in Colwyn's docks. The cordon around the building was maintained, even in the face of growing hostility from the crowd in the park. Five paramilitaries from the support squad made one final sensor sweep after the transport capsules carted off the unfortunate residents, but they found nothing. Once they'd finished they left, reassigned to other more urgent duties. The occupying forces were having a hard time of it;is more and more of Viotia's inhabitants joined the physical pro tests against their presence.

An hour and a half after the last of the suited figures clomped out of apartment four on the fourth floor, the muffled sound of a power tool resonated round the bathroom. One after the other three fixing bolts around the top of the hot water tank spun round then dropped on to the floor. The hemispherical top of the tank tipped up a fraction. Fingers appeared in the gap, and pushed against the thick thermal insulation foam, shoving the top aside. It too fell on to the floor with a loud clang.

'Sweet Ozzie! Araminta groaned.

She took a long time just to lever herself up to a standing position. The cylinder was only just big enough to hold her in terrible crouch position. Every limb throbbed as she finaly stretched them free. Cramp attacked her joint muscles, bringing tears to her eyes. She was close to sobbing when she eventually straightened her spine. It was another five minutes of simple standing and letting the pain subside before she attempted to climb out, using the false wall boxing as a ladder.

The only noise was the crowd outside jeering and taunting the paramilitaries on the cordon. Araminta peered cautiously into the living room. Nobody about. Her macrocellular clusters couldn't detect any individual data signals. She'd isolated herself from the Unisphere, and knew she couldn't reconnect without being detected. She crossed the living room, feeling unnervingly exposed. The main door was ajar, its expensive brass lock broken, which drew a scowl. As far as she could determine, the whole fourth floor was deserted. She shut the door, and jammed a crate of kitchen fittings behind it.

'Okay then, she said, and sat down in the ancient armchair. Got up again and went over to the kettle. She was just about to switch it on when she wondered if some tricky little monitor program would notice the power usage. Five minutes later she'd extracted the power cell from a bot, and wired it up to the kettle.

She sat back down in the armchair with a cup of wonderfully hot tea and some of the classy chocolate biscuits she always kept around.

So now what?

Inigo's Ninth Dream

Edeard hadn't visited the House of Blue Petals for nearly a month. Now, with the court case winding down, he stood on the street facing it as the sea breeze gusted along Upper Tail Canal. Finally, the winter was ending, with the onset of spring conjuring some much-needed warmth across the Lyot Sea. A light drizzle swept through Edeard's concealment to dampen his face. He continued to stare at the building with its long oval windows, frowning at the vague feeling of disquiet stirring in his mind. Men went in and out the same as they always did. The doormen stood like muscular statues on either side of its three tall doors. Even the piano music drifting out across the street was pleasingly familiar.

When he pushed his farsight through the sturdy walls, he detected nothing out of the ordinary. The bar was full of eager clients, with the stewards mixing their drinks which the ge-monkeys delivered. The madam made her rounds. All around the gallery, the girls pouted and batted their eyes, radiating faux longing. Up on the third floor, Ivarl's mind was its usual tight knot of suppressed thoughts. He was in his office as always, with several people in respectful attendance.

It was all perfectly normal.

So what's wrong?

One day he would really have to make sense of these sensations which occasionally haunted him. But this was hardly as bad as the night Ashwell was attacked. He would just have to be alert, that was all.

The two sailors walking up the steps never knew they were shadowed, putting any nerves down to the questing gaze of the uniformed doormen. They were waved through. Edeard followed them across the threshold.

The decor had changed slightly. Ivarl had bought some large coloured-glass globes over two feet in diameter, their swirling patterns of amber and aquamarine clashing in gentle curlicues. Ten of them stood on ornate wooden pedestals around the walls of the bar. Edeard gave them a mildly disapproving glance, and slipped further into the room.

A dog barked loudly.

Edeard froze. He hadn't realized the animal was there, its mind was similar to the ge-monkeys. It was a beagle, chained up to one of the big iron door hinges. Even as he reached for its mind to quieten it down, the doormen were slamming the doors shut. Huge metal bolts, three inches thick were rammed home, locking the doors tight.

He whispered: 'Oh crap, as people started shouting. Several clients were in a panic, scurrying round to find some route out. He had to flatten himself back against the wall as one militia officer ran past demanding to know what was going on. A group of the uniformed doormen had clustered together around the bottom of the stairs. They were brandishing revolvers.

'Gentlemen, your attention please, Ivarl shouted. 'Quiet!

Edeard looked up as the bar fell silent. Ivarl was standing on the gallery, both hands on the rail looking down, his irregular lips open in a brutish smile. Edeard almost let out a cry of dismay. Tannarl, was standing beside him, surveying the upturned faces with that superior leer of his. Edeard had met Ranalee's father only once before, at a fabulous ball the Gilmorn family had thrown in their mansion. As they'd shaken hands he'd seen where Ranalee got her hauteur from.

Lady, but I'm an idiot.

'I'd like to welcome my newest guest to this House, Ivarl announced loudly and smugly, he held up a pair of socks Edeard recognized — they'd been left behind in that lodge on the Iguru, that was what the beagle must have scented. 'And I extend the full use of the bar to you… Waterwalker.

The clients gasped in consternation, looking round to spot Edeard.

'Everyone else is now entitled to a free night with my girls. Please make your way up the stairs. Quickly gentlemen, thank you.

As the doubtful clients did as they were told, Tannarl produced a large pistol which he checked casually. Several of Ivarl's lieutenants had also appeared on the gallery, equally well armed. There was no way Edeard could get up the stairs unnoticed, the group of doormen at the bottom were pressed close together, and using their third hands to form a barrier. Every client was scrupulously checked over before they were allowed up.

When Edeard used his farsight to probe down, he couldn't find any tunnel directly underneath the House of Blue Petals. It would be easy enough for him to smash through one of the doors, but to do that he'd have to drop his concealment. And that was what this was all about, he realized. Ivarl must be desperate to know how Edeard gathered information. Right now he simply suspected.

Edeard looked at the pistols lining up around the gallery. Again, he could protect himself, but at the cost of concealment. He couldn't decide if he'd be safer standing under the gallery, or moving round when they started shooting.

The last of the clients scuttled up the stairs.

'I know you're here, Ivarl called down. Tannarl aimed his pistol down into the bar, and fired. The noise was thunderous. Edeard flinched as the bullet smacked into a high backed chair, blowing a big chunk of wood out of the back. He'd never seen a bullet that powerful before.

Ivarl laughed, and pointed his own pistol down. Edeard scuttled to the side of the bar and crouched down. The barrage of shots which followed sent splinters and clumps of cushioning feathers flying through the air. Some of the lieutenants had a grand time shooting abandoned glasses on the tables.

Ivarl held his hand up and the firing stopped. 'Ready to say hello, yet, my young friend?

Edeard looked across the floor. It was covered in debris now, and cushioning feathers were still fluttering through the air. He would never be able to walk across it without disturbing something. They'd see him instantly.

Ivarl began to reload his pistol, slotting unusually long bullets into the cylinder. 'They say you come from the country somewhere back west, he said casually. 'That probably means you're unfamiliar with parts of our city and how it works. Everyday stuff the rest of us take completely for granted. For instance, did you know that if there's a fire the walls simply repair themselves? In a month, you'd never even know anything happened.

Edeard eyed the back of the bar. He might be able to make it to the rear storeroom without making too much commotion.

One of the wooden pedestals began to tilt as a third hand pushed it. Then it fell over, sending the colourful globe crashing down. The glass smashed. Liquid splashed out. Edeard gave it an alarmed look, he hadn't known the globes contained anything. That was when he realized the liquid was actually Jamolar oil, used in lanterns everywhere on Querencia except Makkathran, where there was no need. The remainder of the globes were shoved over, smashing to flood oil out across the floor. He watched it spreading towards him with growing alarm. This was getting serious, he wasn't sure his shield could cope with fire and these bullets. The oil was getting very close to the nearest stove.

Ivarl finished loading his pistol, and snapped the chamber back. 'Come out come out wherever you are.

Edeard looked above the gang lord. The ceiling which vaulted across the whole bar was inset with broad lighting rosettes whose lips extended down to the walls in a scribble of slender volutes. Their pale-orange radiance was at its strongest. He ordered them off, and to remain off. The bar was plunged into darkness, with the flickering coal flames behind the stove grilles shedding tenuous fans of light. He leapt up and started sprinting for the door.

A pale silver light flared above and behind him, revealing his splashing footprints.

'Huh? Edeard twisted round to see both Ivarl and Tannarl encased in a glowing nimbus.

'You're not so special, Waterwalker, Ivarl jeered. 'You can't even walk on fire. He thrust his hand out. The glow brightened all along his arm, then tiny sparks were cascading from his fingertips, falling down from the gallery like a phosphorescent spray.

Edeard dropped his concealment. The oil ignited.

Flames soared up from the slick floor. A vicious blast of air knocked Edeard into the piano. The shield he'd flung round his body just managed to survive the impact, mitigating the blow. He didn't dare breathe as the flames surged round him, reaching far above his head.

Up on the gallery the girls were screaming as the fire licked up round the wooden railings. Thick smoke churned through the air.

'I see you! Ivarl shouted victoriously. He started shooting.

Edeard dived for the floor, ploughing up a thin wave of flaming oil which sizzled across his shield, barely an inch from his clothes and face. He was managing to ward off the worst of the heat, but his skin felt as if he was immersed in acid. His leather coat was smouldering. Still he didn't dare draw a breath. Bullets punched into the floor beside him, scattering razor-sharp splinters. Up on the gallery, the squealing girls were fleeing down corridors. Terrified clients shoved them aside in their own haste to reach safety. Ivarl and his lieutenants remained steadfast, their shields protecting them from the worst of the flames. They fired away manically with their pistols.

Bullets started to strike Edeard as his attackers drilled through the fire with their farsight. They were like hammer blows on his back, sending pulses of agony along his spine to explode in his brain. He couldn't sustain his shield much longer. He desperately needed air.

His thoughts pushed down hard into the floor, willing escape, pleading Help me! and the floor miraculously changed. He started to fall. There was nothing below him. A bullet hit the shield at the back of his head. He screamed, and blacked out.

* * * * *

Edeard woke to a uniform pain that throbbed horribly. Even before he was fully conscious, he threw up. After that, he simply lay where he was in the hope the pain would fade. His hands and cheeks were sore where the heat from the flames had penetrated his shield. He could feel bruises all over his back. Bright light made him blink sticky tears from his eyes.

Slowly he began to shuffle round and sit up, wincing at every move. It was very quiet. He managed to focus. What he saw made little sense.

He was lying on the floor of a great tunnel. Not as wide as those which mirrored Makkathran's canals, but perfectly circular. Nor was there any water trickling along the bottom. The walls were as smooth as glass, which is what they could well have been made from. He couldn't be sure, for they glowed with a painful intensity. A proper white light, too, not Makkathran's usual orange. In fact this whiteness had a shade of purple blended in, which was why his eyes wouldn't stop watering. Up the curve of I he wall, was a line of scarlet points which shone with equal intensity. They stretched out on either side of him as far as he could see. And that was the problem, he couldn't see any kind of end to the tunnel, not in either direction.

Edeard clambered to his feet, wincing as he gingerly probed his back with his fingertips. His coat was ruined, the leather was hard and cracked, with some strips flaking off as if a knife had been slashing at him. His boots were also in a bad way, the drosilk resin soles had blackened and turned soft. Where he'd lain on the tunnel it was smeared with patches of oil. He eased himself out of his coat, and patted the drosilk waistcoat underneath. The weave had several loose dints. It had probably saved his life he admitted. When he touched the back of his head he gasped at the pain from the lump.

'Thank you, he said out loud to the city, and slowly sank back down again. He knew he was going to have to rest up for a while. His farsight couldn't reach further than a few inches through the tunnel wall. By now he'd decided he was in one of the very deep tunnels which lay a long way underneath the usual canal tunnels he used. If so, then he was really alone in a way he'd never been before. Nobody had been down here since the city was built, and he still didn't know what kind of creatures those might have been. Whoever they were, they'd certainly built very well, though why they would want to build a lighted tunnel like this was beyond his comprehension. But then, that was true of the whole city.

He tried to relax, though it was difficult. Without the city's usual background babble of longtalk which he always ignored, the isolation was quite crushing. He was also angry at himself for what happened in the House of Blue Petals. Of course Ivarl would figure things out eventually. Concealment was not a secret in this city, not among the Masters, and quite a few others. And that ability Ivarl had, the glow that surrounded both him and Tannarl, the sparks, that was something Edeard had never heard of before. Now though, he wasn't entirely surprised, not since that final night he'd spent with Ranalee.

Like all the Grand Family daughters, Ranalee was a lovely-looking girl. She had raven hair which she (well, her maids, anyway) brushed straight every morning so that it would fall halfway down her back. Her face was also long, with narrow eyes, and a cute little nose. Again, all nice features, except in combination they gave the impression of coldness. That seemed to be another eternal feature of Makkathran's aristocracy, the richer or more powerful the family, the less laughter was to be found in their lives. However, she was fiendishly enjoyable in bed. And, truth be told, he was rather excited at the way she spent a couple of weeks manoeuvring Kristiana out of the picture. That single-minded possessiveness when focused on him alone made her even hotter.

He certainly didn't object when she announced they would be spending the weekend at a family-owned lodge out on the Iguru. Macsen and Boyd enviously wished him luck. He'd often wondered afterwards if they were being prophetic.

The lodge was a work of art, made from carved timbers and decorated with a tasteful excellence which only the Gilmorn money could provide. He enjoyed the very human architecture after the city's relentless non-human appearance. They took 'almost no one' with them, as Ranalee defined the five servants who were there to cater to her every whim. At night she dismissed the staff to their cottage. 'Outside their farsight range, she explained with relish, 'because we won't be able to keep a seclusion haze going. He was led into the main bedroom with its huge normal bed, one with a wooden frame and springs and a feather mattress; the first he'd slept on since Plax, he realized with a fond recollection of Franlee. Ranalee made him wait while she attired herself in some of the most expensive lingerie produced by the city's couturiers. Never before, Edeard thought, had so much money been so incredibly well spent. It must have been the wine and being graced with such a vision that left him so vigorously aroused. Ranalee exploited that state and her own sexuality quite ruthlessly. Sweet little Franlee would have been appalled by their behaviour.

'I like that you're so receptive, Ranalee told him as they lay side by side on the lavender-scented sheets. Ranalee, he'd discovered, wasn't the kind of girl who wanted to cuddle afterwards. Candelabras in each corner of the room produced a mild yellow light, enabling him to see the expression of distant satisfaction on her face as she stared up at the bed's embroidered canopy. 'On every level, she added.

'Yes, he said, not quite sure what she was saying.

'1 have a proposition for you. I'm sure Kristiana and others have made it, but I have the contacts and ability to make it work better than they ever could. And in addition, you wouldn't be entirely dependent on Gilmorn money, which for someone like you would be quite important, I imagine.

'Uh, what kind of proposition? Edeard was still reliving the last couple of hours. He'd never been so ferocious before, it was an abandon she had demanded and responded to in kind. The exhilaration had been overwhelming, making him desperate for it never to end.

She turned her head to give him a shrewd stare. 'I marry you, and arrange for rewarding contacts with all those desperate third and fourth daughters.

'Marry? he blurted. They'd known each other for a few weeks.

'Yes. I am a second daughter, you know.

'Er, yes. That's very flattering, Ranalee, but I'm not quite sure, er, what I want.

'Well it's about time you seriously started thinking about it. You have value now, you should capitalize on it.

Edeard wondered if he had misheard something. 'Capitalize?

'Well face it, for all you're popular and interesting, you'll never be Mayor.

'Why not? he asked indignantly.

Ranalee laughed. 'You're not one of us, are you? You don't belong to a Grand Family.

'The Mayor is elected by the city.

'Dear Lady, are you joking?

'I can make it to Chief Constable. As a Grand Council member I'd be eligible to put my name forward.

'With our family backing, you probably could get that far. But when did the Chief Constable ever make Mayor?

'I don't know, he admitted.

'Never.

'Oh.

'So don't be so silly. I'm talking about the future.

'All right. He was stung by the crack about him not being able to achieve much on merit. 'What's the proposition?

'I told you. I'll be your gatekeeper.

'I'm… sorry, I don't get any of this.

She rolled on to her side, and reached down between his legs. 'Exploit your potential. That's what the families truly value. These, to be precise. Long-nailed fingers closed around a very sensitive piece of anatomy.

'Potential?

'Lady, you're ignorant. I just didn't realize how much. How do you think families like mine achieved our position?

'Some of it was luck, being in the right place at the right time in history, some of it was down to hard work, your family especially. Your ancestors took huge risks exploring new markets with their ships.

'Crap. It's breeding.

'Right.

'You doubt me? The one thing the families cherish more than anything is a strong psychic ability. That's what we use to maintain our position; farsight that can see what our rivals are up to inside a seclusion haze, a third hand strong enough to protect ourselves, and a few other useful little talents, too. We prize that trait above all others in a mate. That's what every family bloodline nurtures. And now you've walked out of the wilds and into the city, a simple country boy with more strength than a dozen family sons put together. We want you, Water-walker. We want what these contain. Her fingers closed tighter, nail tips sharp on his scrotum.

Edeard kept very still. His tongue licked round his lips as she held him on the threshold of pain. 'Okay, I get it now.

'Good boy. So I marry you. She smiled and stretched provocatively. Her voice purred, echoing round inside his skull. 'You get this magnificent body whenever you want and in whatever fashion you desire. And you've already discovered how fantastic that will be for you. I'm everything a man dreams of. Aren't I? The way she spoke it was a taunt, a challenge.

'Yes. He couldn't lie to her. That same husky voice had goaded him throughout the night. It spoke directly to some animal deep inside, awaking the most shameful desires. Yet she was the one suggesting them, rejoicing at how bad their bodies could behave. The notion of every night for the rest of his life spent like this one was igniting a fever inside him. He would fight every bandit on Querencia to make it happen.

'I will yield to you, she promised meekly. 'You will father a host of lovely little girls in me. They will run round the mansion and live a life of luxury and make you so unbelievably happy while you clear the scum out of the city and ascend to the Chief Constable's office. That's by day, she vowed tantalizingly.

'And by night?

Ranalee's smile mellowed, she eased her grip a fraction. Her lips were now so close they brushed his ear. 'I will bring a multitude of the city's minor daughters to our bed. Now her hand crept up to hold his stone-hard member. Edeard smiled in utter bliss as she directed his imagination to the satisfaction his masculinity could achieve for him. 'Each of them yearning for you to sire a daughter. They will pay to receive your fulfilment again and again.

'Yes, he groaned ecstatically.

'Beautiful girls. Young girls. Girls like Kristiana married off to equal nonentities out in the merchant classes or the militia — our country cousins. They'll have the daughters who'll go on to marry the next generation of first sons. Every family will be in a fervour for them. She sucked in her cheeks thoughtfully, suddenly playful. 'Maybe I'll be able to negotiate a percentage of the dowry as part of your stud fee.

Edeard was suddenly bedevilled by an image of Mistress Florrel, which he must have allowed to slip out.

Ranalee laughed delightedly. 'Her! Yes, that's why she was so sought after, she is an amazingly strong psychic; I'm four generations down from her myself. And don't forget Rah, either.

'Rah!

'Why do you think every Grand Family claims to be descended from him? We actually are. A third hand strong enough to cut through the city's crystal wall, who wouldn't want that?

'I never knew any of this, he said softly. It all made such perfect sense now she'd laid it out.

'Within three generations your descendants will rule Makkathran. That's less than a hundred years, Waterwalker. And then you will be king in all but name. Think what you can achieve with such power.

'I will break them, he said, eager now she had opened his eyes to so many opportunities. 'I will destroy the gangs. The city will regain all it has lost since Rah's time. The Skylords will come again to carry us off to Odin's Sea.

'I will go there with you.

'Yes, together!

'As it is this night, it will always be for you. I pledge myself to that cause. Your pleasure will never end. She rose above him, face gleaming triumphant in the tranquil candle light. 'Now you will celebrate our union, she told him, her whisper filling the room in a crescendo.

Edeard's mind lost all focus as his flesh obeyed her demands. He was lost between ecstasy and delirium.

'You will give me our first daughter this night, Ranalee decreed.

Edeard laughed ecstatically. 'Let's just hope it is a daughter. Tears of joy were running from his eyes.

'It will be. They all will be. Every girl knows how.

'How?

'How to take care of an inconvenience like that. They must be girls.

'But the boys…

'There can be no boys. They have no value. The families practise primogeniture, apart for the odd embarrassment like the Culverits. So your daughters can marry directly into a family's main lineage.

'What? His thoughts were swirling as panic contaminated his physical delight. 'What?

'The embryos are not people, she crooned. 'Not at the stage where their gender becomes apparent. There isn't even any discomfort for me. Don't think of this any more.

'What? No!

'Relax, my beautiful strong Waterwalker. Do what you do best.

'No, Edeard shouted. He felt smothered, fighting for breath against a torrent of horror. 'No no no. He pushed. Pushed hard. Pushed with his third hand. Pushed himself away from such evil.

Ranalee wailed in shock as she flew through the air. Edeard was panting hard, trying to shake the miasma from his thoughts. He felt as if he was shaking off a nightmare. His heart was yammering in his chest. He searched round frantically to see Ranalee sprawled across the rug at the foot of the bed. She looked dangerous, her hair wild, a snarl on her lips as she stood up and faced him.

'What happened? he gasped, still fearful. He could barely resist the urge to continue, to bend her over the bed and take her — and from that to rule Makkathran through his offspring.

'I set you free, she growled.

Her voice seemed to clang around the inside of his head. He groaned at the intensity, jamming his hands over his ears.

'I showed you your real desires. Follow them. Liberate yourself.

'Stop it, he begged. He was curling up, struggling against his own treachery, the yearning to follow her path into the future.

'Inhibitions aren't for people like us. You have strength in your blood, as do I. Think what we can achieve together. Believe in us— That last she caterwauled at him.

The force behind the command almost sent Edeard tumbling from the mattress. Her mind was bright and hot. It finally made him realize it wasn't her voice he was battling. Somehow she was speaking directly into his mind. Insidiously potent longtalk had corrupted his own thoughts, forcing him to bend to her will as if he were no more than a genistar being ordered to clear up manure. He clenched his teeth, and concentrated, willing his third hand to contract around him, becoming hard enough to deflect longtalk. Pleading to the Lady to make him strong enough.

'Listen to me! Ranalee demanded.

Edeard could see her lips still moving, as her voice faded away. Every trick he'd learned in the city about shielding his emotions was woven together and reinforced by his telekinesis. He crouched on the mattress, hearing nothing, sensing nothing. Isolated.

Ranalee glared at him. Once his nerves had steadied, he glared back. His hands were trembling from shock and fear.

'You, he gulped down a breath. 'You tried… You wanted me to… Oh sweet Lady. The thought of what he'd only just managed to elude sent another shiver along his spine.

Ranalee regarded him contemptuously. She said something.

Edeard cautiously allowed her voice through the shield his third hand had created. But not her longtalk. Lady no! That he kept perfectly blocked. 'What?

'You stupid pitiful country peasant.

'Bitch, he spat back.

Her contempt matured into utter scorn. 'You think that isn't you? You believe you are noble and kind? Do you know how the dominance works? It plucks at the true strings of the heart. And I am a master of those passionate tunes; I play men for the simpletons they are. I recognize what lurks within, Waterwalker. You are all ruled by your ego and your lust, the real traits flowing in the blood. Everything I offered is a seed inside you. I simply give you the chance to let your true nature grow.

'I am not like that.

'How many family girls have you already bedded? You gave in to yourself on that quickly enough, didn't you? How many months have you and your pitiful squadmates spent in a lowlife tavern plotting and scheming to overthrow the gangs and make you Chief Constable? That is exactly what I offer you. Not in the way your childish daydreams imagine, I can give you all that for real, Grow up, Waterwalker. Your supposed virtue cannot bring you to power by itself, for that power is ultimately what you crave. The power to shape the city in your vision. That's right, is it not?

'Yes, he murmured. 'An honest city. One where people are not bred for advantage and profit.

'Sometimes you have to do what's wrong in order to do what's right.

He stared at her, stunned.

'Oh. A phrase even you've heard, then? Do you know who said it? Rah himself, as he forced his way through Makkathran's walls. He knew that only inside would his people have sanctuary from the chaos spilling out from the ships which brought us here. So he gave us the city. He took the city, and by doing so gave us order and stability that has stood for two thousand years.

'No, Edeard shook his head. 'I'm not… children shouldn't be born for that. They should be loved for themselves.

'They would be. And ours would be destined for greatness, too.

'It's not right'

'Really? And what if you only marry one girl, a nice sweet little thing who loves you dearly the way it is out in your backward villages? What do you think awaits those children of the Waterwalker? Me. That's what. Me, and all the others like me. The fewer children you have, the more valuable they become. The boys will be seduced by family daughters, the girls will be taken as trophy wives by our first sons. It will make most excellent sport. We will have the strength of your blood, one way or the other.

'Not like that you won't.

She tossed her head, regarding him with true aristocratic derision. 'You can achieve so much, Waterwalker. If Makkathran is to be remade as you would wish it, then it must change almost beyond recognition. I have no quarrel with that, for I would be atop that change. But radical change must come from within. You know how that has to happen now, your blood must spread wide, carrying with it your will.

'I can change things from where I am.

'No, she said harshly. 'Change imposed by an outsider is an external threat, the one thing that would pull all of Makkathran together. The families, the common man, even the gangs; they would unite to defeat you.

'Those groups, they want me to win, to get rid of the gangs and the corruption that allows them to thrive.

'They want you to get rid of the gangs, that's all. You can't do that, not without help from the established order, they're woven too tightly into our streets and canals for you to root out. The Councils and the Guilds won't help you unless you're committed wholeheartedly to supporting them. You don't have a choice. Your subconscious knows that. I saw your every feeble thought tonight.

'So you're the easy way?

Ranalee ran her gaze lecherously along his naked body. 'Lust for power wasn't the only craving you exposed. All men are the same in the end. I enjoyed that part as much as you did.

'I refuse to play this game with you.

'Idiot, she sighed in disgust, and held out an arm. Her third hand fished a long robe from the closet, which glided through the air to her. 'But then our children were never going to inherit their intelligence from you, were they?

Edeard clambered off the bed, feeling intolerably weary. He was also disgusted with himself, because he knew that part of the night had been true. Her insidious power had unleashed what lay within him.

'It might already be too late for you, she taunted.

He recovered his underwear. 'What do you mean?

She patted her stomach. 'I'm at the right time in my cycle, and you certainly delivered adequately. I'll be such a good mother. I'll even keep it if it's a boy. He can start breeding in a little over a decade. A rival to you. She smiled to deliver maximum hurt.

Edeard's heart fluttered. There was a phial of vinak juice in his luggage. He'd been so desperate to get her into the bedroom he'd never taken it. She hadn't given him time. All deliberate, he knew now.

Fool! She's right, you really are nothing but a backward peasant!

Ranalee caught his distress and laughed.

Edeard's third hand gripped her and shoved her up into the canopy above the bed. Her eyes bulged with shock as she found she couldn't breathe. Below her; Edeard pulled on his shirt, taking his time, not looking up. 'I lack your skill in killing unborns, he said calmly. 'So I'd have to eliminate you to make sure he was never born into the life you envisage for him, or her. He eased off a fraction, and Ranalee sucked down precious air. 'You're too weak, she hissed furiously.

'Sometimes you have to do what's wrong in order to do what's right. He let go of her.

Ranalee crashed down on to the big bed, bouncing hard on the mattress. She scrambled round, and found Edeard leaning over her. She shrank back in trepidation from the expression on his face and the timbre of his thoughts.

'You should never talk so casually about death and killing, he told her. 'Not to those of us who have killed, and will kill again.

'You'll die alone with your dreams broken, she cried defiantly.

'If you are pregnant you will inform me, and I will bring the child up myself. He pulled his boots on, and went out into tin-night, leaving his luggage (including socks) behind.

It had been a long miserable walk back to Makkathran. With only himself for company he was forced to face aspects of his psyche that he didn't much admire. Again and again he considered Ranalee's proposal. He suspected she might be right about how impossible it would be to rip the gangs out of Makkathran. Dear Lady, was this the proposal Finitan spoke of? li can't be. It can't.

How he longed for Akeem's wisdom. Just one last question for his old Master. When he pictured Akeem's kindly ancient face, his old Master was shaking his head in that amused dismay of his which had greeted so many apprentice follies, as if to say: you already know the answer.

When dawn did eventually break and Edeard begged a lift off a farmer driving his cart to market, he was resolved. He would take on Ivarl and the gangs on his own terms. That way he gave himself a victory over the darker nature resting in his soul.

Now, looking along the brightly lit tunnel that seemed to go on for ever beneath the city, Edeard knew he had another long, lonely trek home.

'I really am going to have to get help to deal with these bastards, he decided wearily. Neither the tunnel nor the city answered him. He shrugged and got to his feet again. It wasn't quite so painful as last time. He looked one way, then the other. There was absolutely no difference between them. Both ways saw the tunnel extend out to vanishing point. And the silence was starting to get to him. It was as profound as the time he'd used his third hand to defend himself against Ranalee's voice.

Talents, she'd said, useful little talents. Plural. Edeard had never heard of anything like the liquid light which Ivarl and Tannarl could manifest. And to think; when he'd hauled Arminel back to justice across the surface of Birmingham Pool he'd considered himself invincible. It made him wonder how many other nasty little surprises the aristocratic families kept among themselves.

He probed round with his farsight, trying to find exactly where he was. The tunnel was very deep. He examined the structure above him, searching for a clue of his fall, the direction he'd come from. Makkathran had altered itself again to let him though, but he couldn't detect any difference in the solid bulk overhead. When he focused, he thought he glimpsed something. His farsight swept back, and there he was. It was like an image of himself embedded in the city's substance. Falling, with his arms waving madly, his coat trailing smoke. As he studied the image, it moved slowly. If he focused on the substance above, it sinned to rise back, following, his own point of concentration.

When he changed direction, so did the image. Memory, he realized in delight. The city remembers me.

Edeard tracked the image of himself to the place where it dropped out of the tunnel roof. It was kind of funny to see himself landing splat on the floor, but it still didn't tell him which way to walk, just where the House of Blue Petals stood above. He reached out for the city's peaceful thoughts, and projected an image of Transal Street in Jeavons where he always used a disused cellar to go down into the canal tunnels. Do you have a memory of how to get there? he queried.

There were no images, which he'd only half expected anyway. Then he began to scrabble round for his footing because the tunnel was somehow tilting. The floor shifted down alarmingly fast, and Edeard slipped on to his back. He started sliding along the smooth surface, picking up speed as the angle kept increasing. It was already way past forty-five degrees, and building. The infinite line of red lights was flashing past. He instinctively knew what was going to happen next, even though it was utterly impossible. How can a tunnel possibly tilt?

There was never any answer. The only sound in the tunnel was Edeard's scream as he began to fall down the now vertical shaft.

When he stopped to draw breath he didn't bother screaming again, after all this was how he dropped down into the canal tunnels. It was just that he never had such an impression of speed before. Maybe if he shut his eyes…

He opened them hurriedly. That was too much, he had to match up what he was seeing with what his body felt. The red lights were now a solid smear he was going so fast. This was the freedom of the ge-eagles! A side tunnel flashed past, and In-gasped in shock. Before he could wonder where it led, another had come and gone. He managed a tentative laugh. No one had ever travelled like this. It was stupendous! This night crowned him king of the city, and Honious take Ranalee, Ivarl and all their kind. For they were the real ignorant ones.

There was only one truly frightening moment, when his body was twisted by whatever guided him and kept him clear of the tunnel walls, and he abruptly flipped out of the main tunnel into one of the junctions. He drew a sharp breath, but his worry soon faded. If the city wanted him dead he would have joined Akeem in Odin's Sea long time ago.

Eventually, his wayward flight ended as the tunnel shifted back to horizontal. Edeard wound up sliding for a long way on his arse until the tunnel floor was completely horizontal again. He looked up, and sent his farsight flowing through the bulk above. The top of the tunnel changed in that eerie and now thoroughly familiar way, and he fell up. Darkness engulfed him, and a minute later he popped up into the chill air and weak orange light of the Marble Canal tunnel.

The sight of it was immediately disheartening. Knowing he was going back up to the city streets brought his defeat into sharp focus. He couldn't tell anyone, couldn't turn to anyone. Worse, he didn't really know what to do next.

Maybe I should just leave. Ride away to Ufford, and Salrana and I will live happily out in the country where we belong.

It was so tempting. But if he didn't take a stand against the gangs, and the likes of Ranalee and her family, nothing would ever change. And ultimately the city's decay would bring the countryside down with it. The problem would belong to his children, and by then it would be even greater.

Edeard sighed, and started his trek home.

* * * * *

He spent the next day in his maisonette, longtalking Dinlay at the station, claiming he had a cold. Lian's trial was in its eighth day, but he'd already appeared in the witness stand. The prosecution didn't need him again. Dinlay wished him well.

One of his ge-monkeys was dispatched to the nearest doctor's house to fetch a soothing ointment, which he dabbed on his scorched skin. Then he apologized to Jessile and asked her not to come round for the evening, claiming he didn't want to pass on his cold. She commiserated, and got her family's cook to send round a hamper loaded with chicken soup and other treats.

What he wanted was to spend a couple of days resting up, thinking about his next move; certainly he needed to talk to Grand Master Finitan. Then at lunchtime on the second day Kanseen longtalked him.

* * * * *

The Cobara district had always delighted Edeard. It didn't have streets like the rest of the city. Instead, over a hundred great pillar towers rose out of the ground, all a uniform four storeys high, wide enough for each level to provide enough room for a family to live in. But it was above the towers where the architecture excelled. Each tower was the support column for a broad bridge spanning the gap to the next tower. Most towers provided the base for at least three such bridges, and many had more than that, webbing the district with an array of suspended polygon structures. That was where the district's true accommodation began, extending up to six storeys high from the low curve of each bridge platform. They formed triangles, squares, pentagons, hexagons and, right in the centre of the district, the bridges made up the famous Rafael's Fountain dodecagon which housed the Artist, Botany, and Cartography Guilds. The fountain itself roared up from a big pool in the middle of the dodecagon, its foaming white tip rising higher than the arching crystal roofs.

Edeard walked past the fierce jet of water, his third hand sweeping away the stingingly cold spray that splattered round the edges of the pool. He was well wrapped up in his fur-lined cloak, with a black ear-flap hat pulled down over his hair, and a maroon scarf covering his mouth. Nobody recognized him through his seclusion haze, though he was very conscious of the ge-eagle slipping through the dull grey sky that was keeping pace with him.

After the fountain he took a left, heading towards the Millagal tower, with its red and blue striped walls, covered by a leafless network of gurkvine branches. Teams of ge-monkeys were out in force, clearing the last of the slush on the plaza which extended across the whole district beneath the thick shadows of the elevated buildings. Winter gave Cobara a strangely subterranean aspect, with only sallow slivers of sunlight reaching down through the elaborate structures above. In summer, the plaza was full of people and small markets and street artists and kids playing games. Today, they were all huddled next to their stoves in the rooms overhead, complaining about springs late appearance.

Edeard was glad there were few people about, his mood was still down. He arrived at the base of the Yolon tower, and went through the wide archway. A massive set of stairs spiralled up the central lightwell. He grunted at the sight of them, each curving ledge spaced just wrong for human legs. One day, he reflected as he made his calf-aching way upwards, he would just throw caution away and reshape every Lady-damned staircase in the city.

Three bridge cloisters radiated out from the top of the stairs. He took the Kimvula one, and was immediately heartened by the bustling atmosphere so high above the ground. The cloister was narrow in relation to the height of the walls on either side, five storeys of ogee arches and oriel windows. Nevertheless, it was wide enough for stalls to be set up along both sides. He unwrapped his scarf as he walked past them, it was warm inside the cloister, the winter sunlight shaded with a faint pink tinge by the crystal roof. People flocked round the various stalls, haggling with the owners. The air was scented with spices, and very dry. Someone, somewhere, was roasting honeyplumbs.

A third of the way down the cloister he turned into a narrow side corridor which led to yet another spiral stair. Sighing, he trudged up a further three storeys. The hallway on this floor was illuminated by the city's orange light radiating from the circles positioned above each doorway. He found the red door, with its ivy hinges painted purple, and knocked politely even though he could sense the minds behind the wall.

Dybal opened it. The old musician wasn't his usual self, he still wore a vibrantly coloured shirt, and his hair was immaculately braided, but the forceful good humour was subdued. 'Thank you for coming, he said. His eyes narrowed as he took in Edeard's blotchy pink face. 'Are you all right? You look like you've been burnt.

"I'm okay. I had an accident, that's all.

'Strange, that'll be the second accident I've heard of this week; there was a fire in the House of Blue Petals two nights ago. You shouldn't hang around that place, Edeard, it's been the ruin of many a poor boy.

'I'll remember, thanks.

Edeard was led into the parlour, which had a bulbous bay window looking out across the pentagonal space outside. Far below them, big nutpear trees grew in a series of troughs which curved out of the plaza floor. Their denuded branches shone bright white amid the shadows of the bridge buildings.

The rest of his squad were already there. Boyd and Dinlay standing close to a coal-burning iron stove, looking concerned and radiating worry. Kanseen was busying herself with a samovar of tea, her thoughts tightly shielded as always. Macsen knelt on the floor next to a chair where Bijulee was sitting, his arm on his mother's legs. She'd obviously been crying. Now she was dabbing at her face with a handkerchief, wearing a brave smile.

Edeard looked at the bruise that was darkening round her eye, and winced. His dismay suddenly turned to anger. 'Did you know them? he blurted.

She directed a fond smile at Edeard. Even with the bruise, she was still beautiful. 'No. I told them not to call you. I don't want you worried by this.

'Mother, Macsen said. 'It's our fault this happened.

'No, she insisted.

'What did they do? Edeard asked, almost afraid to know. He could see Macsen's hands clenching into fists.

'Nothing, Bijulee said. She smiled up at Kanseen who brought her a cup of steaming tea over. 'Thank you. They were just some thugs.

'Four, Macsen growled. 'Four thugs. He gave Edeard a significant look.

'They told me that actions have consequences, Bijulee said.

'And that Macsen should watch out. One hand caressed her son's head. 'They said you should find a different job. Then She indicated her eye. 'I never saw it coming. Me! I used to think I was city-smart. Lady, how stupid of me.

'Bastards! Macsen exclaimed.

'Cowards, Dinlay said.

'We've always known that, Kanseen said.

'Do you remember what they looked like? Edeard asked. 'Can you gift us?

'I'm afraid I can't, Bijulee said. 'It's all a bit of a blur. Maybe tomorrow when I've calmed down.

'Of course. I'm so sorry this happened. I don't know what Ivarl thinks he can achieve. The trial is only going to last another couple of days. Lian and the others are going to get decades in Trampello. What does he think he's going to get me to do by this?

'It's not your fault.

Macsen's jaw muscles clamped down. He continued to gaze up at his mother full of concern and adoration.

'Did anyone see anything? Edeard asked Dybal.

'No. It was the middle of the morning in the Bellis market. Hundreds of people were there, and nobody can remember anything. They do what they always do, and rush to help afterwards.

'I'm sorry, Edeard said again. He felt so useless. 'I'll do everything I can to make sure this doesn't happen again.

Dybal gave him a sad smile. 'I know you will. You're a good lad, Edeard, I appreciate that. I appreciate what you're trying to achieve, too. People need hope, especially now. Shame there's only one of you. This is a big city.

The squad got ready to leave. Edeard found Macsen's blatant hostility quite disconcerting; his friend was normally the most level headed of them all. 'Can I talk to you for a moment? Edeard asked Dybal.

The musician ushered him into a small room which held over a dozen guitars as well as a drum set. A desk overflowed with sheet music. Normally Edeard would have been fascinated by the instruments, today he took a shaky breath. 'I know this isn't a terribly appropriate time.

Dybal took off his blue glasses and polished them with his sleeve. 'I'll help you any way I can, lad. You know that. You're important. Not just because you're Macsen's friend.

'Thank you. Er…

'You'll find there's very little shocks me, if that's any help.

'Okay. I just wondered if you knew anything about longtalk dominance?

Dybal raised an eyebrow. 'The old lust slave serenade? You don't want to be messing with that kind of mischief, Edeard, no matter how pretty she is. Trust me, there can be repercussions. Anyway, from what I've heard, every mother and daughter in tin-city is forming a disorderly queue to drag you off to bed.

'I don't want to use it. I want to stop it being used against me.

'Ah. I see. Some of those family daughters not taking no I'm an answer, eh?

'I wish it was that pleasant.

Dybal studied his face closely. 'I'm sorry to hear that. First off, keep your mind tightly shielded. Which is a shame. You always seem a little more open than those of us born in the city, it helps make you so endearing.

'Right'

'This technique works through your own weakness. Parts of us should always stay buried, Edeard. Common decency is normally enough to keep those kind of thoughts suppressed, but once they've been kindled it's hard to put them aside again.

'I know, he said miserably.

Dybal's hand gripped his shoulder. 'Don't worry. Listen, there is no shame in possessing these thoughts, we all have them, some little vixen managed to sneak through your defences;n fired them up one night then that's a lesson learned, and a valuable one at that. The fact that it disturbed you this much a pretty clear sign that it's not part of your natural personality which is encouraging to me if not you. And I have faith enough in you to think you're strong enough to survive a crisis of conscience. But just in case: here's a recognition gift, it should help warn you if anyone tries that little trick again.

Edeard examined the burst of thoughts Dybal shot at him, memorizing the technique. 'Thank you.

'Now get yourself back on those streets, and generally kick the shit out of Ivarl and his cronies.

* * * * *

Nobody in the squad said much as they all walked back across four districts to the constable station in Jeavons. Edeard just knew there was going to be a big argument when they got there. Macsen was going to pick a fight no matter what. Bijulee had been too much. Which meant Edeard was going to have to do something, and he was now starting to feel bad about not trusting them with the real enormity of everything he'd discovered. If the next couple of hours went wrong, then everything they'd achieved would all be over.

There were a couple of other constables in the small hall, who took a fast scan of the suppressed emotions seething through the squad, and hurriedly made their exit. The thick wooden doors slammed shut. Edeard raised his eyebrow at that. Someone's third hand was adrenaline powered today.

He unbuttoned his cloak's neck clasp and sat at his customary bench at the top end of the hall.

'My mother! Macsen said brutally.

'Yeah.

'Yeah? That's all you can say? Yeah?

'Did you really think Ivarl wouldn't try to apply some pressure?

'Pressure! Lady-be-damned, that was my mother they used as a punchbag. My mother!

'It's his way of trying to get to me, Edeard said quietly, his hand went to his cheek of its own accord, stoking the tender flesh. 'You're the only friends I've got, my one vulnerability. He's bound to use that as hard as he can.

'Yes, Kanseen said so wistfully that Edeard shot her a curious glance. She shrugged. 'My sister was hassled last week. She was carrying Dium at the time.

'Why didn't you tell me? Edeard exclaimed bitterly.

'Trust, probably, Macsen said viciously.

'Oh… Edeard flung his hands up in dismay. 'In the Lady's name!

'We thought we were in this together, Edeard. We were with you at Birmingham Pool remember? Does that mean nothing too you?

'It means everything Edeard shouted. Finally he was too distraught to keep himself in check.

They all swayed back as his doubts and confusions blazed out. He made an effort, gritting his teeth and placing his hands palm-down on the old wood of the table. 'Sorry, he told their shocked expressions.

'Edeard, in the Lady's name, what's wrong? Boyd pleaded. 'What happened to you, to your face? And why won't you talk to us any more?

'He didn't trust us with the Myco warehouse, Macsen said harshly. 'Why should he trust us with anything else.

'You're such an arse, Kanseen snapped at Macsen.

'I do trust you, Edeard said, even to him it sounded like a bored recital. 'I got burned when I was sneaking around the House of Blue Petals. That's all. It's not as bad as it looks.

'You went there by yourself? Kanseen asked disapprovingly.

'Yeah. It's how I've been keeping track of Ivarl.

'That's dangerous, Boyd said. 'Edeard, you can't do that on your own.

Macsen let out a scornful grunt. 'He's the Waterwalker, he can do anything. He doesn't need us holding him back, do you?

Edeard sighed, this was worse than he'd steeled himself for. 'The warehouse raid was the most public thing we'd ever attempted. Ivarl had laid a trap, he was going to make us — me! — a laughing stock. The whole thing was set up to destroy my credibility. I just used some misdirection. There were over a hundred constables involved, and we didn't know half of them. If everyone had known, it would never have worked.

'We're not everyone, Macsen barked. 'We're your friends, your squad. Or so I thought.

'Hey, ease up, Dinlay said. 'It was good procedure.

'Yeah, well I expected you to take his side.

'What's that supposed to mean?

'Come on, Edeard said. 'We can't do this. Ivarl will be laughing at us.

'So his opinion is valuable to you, is it? Macsen said. 'Whereas mine — no contest.

'That's not—

'Don't get upset, Kanseen interjected. 'He's just angry.

'No shit? Macsen spat at her. 'Why do you think that is? I am a part of this fucking squad, this so-called team. I had faith in you, Edeard. Faith. Me, of all people, me! And how do you treat that? You just bloody use us to boost your own stature. The Waterwalker saves the day again. Well crap on that.

'I didn't use anyone. We were all on that raid together. I made you a vital part of it. Did you know there was going to be a robbery? Did you know where they were going to stash the platinum? Did you know there was going to be a switch?

'So what are you saying? I'm not worthy enough because I can't spy as well as you? Are any of us, because that's what this is about. Even Dinlay's pissed at the way you exclude us.

'I am not, Dinlay said, so quickly Edeard didn't even look at his friend's face.

'If all you want is a bunch of constables who'll run around and do your bidding, then fine, Macsen said. 'There are dozens of them in this station alone. But if you want to work with me, then you are coming down off your tower and start trusting us again.

'Screw you! Edeard said. 'You have no idea what we're up against. Not the faintest clue. I'm protecting you.

'I don't need your protection. And I know more about the gangs than you ever will, count iv boy. I grew up in Makkathran.

'I grew up in Makkathran, Kanseen said. 'Dinlay did, Boyd did. You had a nice cushy life on the Iguru.

'I did what? Macsen pushed his face out towards Kanseen.

'Stop it, now, Edeard said. 'I didn't include you in certain things because I was frightened.

They stopped arguing, and shot each other puzzled looks. Edeard rested his elbows on the table and put his head in his hands. He was worried there were tears leaking from his eyes he was so worked up. 'You're all I've got. I don't want us broken up. Not just because I depend on you. We have something here, and it's more than just kicking the crap out of Ivarl. We had hopes. I couldn't stand it if those were broken. I'd be left with nothing once more. I'd rather be dead.

Kanseen came and sat on the bench next to him as the others started to radiate concern. 'What is it? she asked, putting her arms round his shoulder. 'What's the matter, Edeard? We all trusted each other at the start. Nothing's changed, not really. Tell us.

Edeard lifted his head, and started straight at Macsen, letting his friend see all his anguish. 'Do you want to do this?

'Yes, Macsen said, now looking really worried.

'Really?

'Yes!

'Everyone?

Boyd and Dinlay nodded.

Kanseen squeezed his shoulder. 'Of course.

'All right, then. But I want you to swear on the Lady that you won't shoot the messenger.

'Hey, we're grown ups, Macsen said.

'No we're not, Edeard said. 'Not really.

'You're getting very depressing, Boyd said with a nervous smile. 'Just what do you want to tell us?

'What we're up against. The scale of the gangs. I want to make you understand.

'We do know, Edeard, Dinlay said sympathetically. 'They even tried to intimidate my sister Carna last Wednesday. Lady, they won't do that again in a hurry.

'Carna? Macsen said. 'She's the, er…

'My big sister, Dinlay said with a contented smile. 'Very big.

Edeard cocked his head at Boyd.

'Yeah, Boyd nodded dismally. 'Isoix had some more trouble.

'So? Macsen insisted. 'What's your big secret?

'I'll show you, Edeard said slowly. 'Sometime in the next few days. I'm not sure when, but be ready. When I call for you go to the Flight Canal end of Golard Street.

'You mean near the Black Horse? Macsen asked.

'Yeah, but don't go in there for the Lady's sake. And make very sure you're not followed.

'Easy.

'Actually it isn't. Ivarl uses ge-eagles to shadow all of us, but I'll take care of them. It'll be night, so that'll help you.

'He does what? Kanseen asked; just for a moment her mind betrayed real alarm.

'He watches us, Edeard said quietly. 'He has for the last month. I've been messing with the ge-eagles he uses, but I can't manage to protect you the whole time.

'Shit.

Edeard climbed to his feet. He gave Macsen a sorrowful look. 'I am sorry about Bijulee.

'I know. Macsen stuck his hand out.

Edeard shook reluctantly, still dreading what was to come. 'Remember, the messenger is just that.

'Got you.

* * * * *

Edeard went back to the court the next day to watch the prosecution and defence councils deliver their closing statements. He was interested that Ivarl couldn't be bothered to turn up to hear Lian be found guilty, nor was he there the following day when a twenty-five year sentence was handed out. After the judges loft the chamber, the constables from Jeavons station crowded round Edeard to congratulate him. Then they had to make way for Grand Master Sparbil of the Chemistry Guild who had been in the court for every day of the trial.

'Thank you, young man, Sparbil said, giving Edeard's healing face a close look. 'The loss of that material would have meant a considerable financial weakness for my Guild. I am in your debt.

'I was doing my job, sir, Edeard replied.

'I'm sure you were. But I remain grateful. If we can ever assist you, please just ask.

'I will. Thank you, sir.

'Finitan was right about you, I think you are of benefit to the city. A shame District Master Bise doesn't share that opinion, but don't worry, he is outnumbered in Council.

'Bise? Edeard knew the name, Bise was Sampalok's District Master. He'd never seen Bise turn up at the House of Blue Petals in person, but he knew the Master had extensive financial connections with Ivarl's organization.

'High politics, I'm afraid, Sparbil said with a grin. 'Not that there is anything high about it, of course. Our little voting bloc in the Council is full square behind you. Unfortunately, our opponents take the opposite view. But that's the way it is in Council. If they had come down on your side, I'd probably be against you by now. Same with the weather; if they vote for sun, I'll vote for rain.

'Uh, I see.

'Take my advice, don't put yourself forward as a candidate for Chief Constable for at least another two hundred years. That way you can remain out in the city where you'll still be in a position to accomplish something.

'Yes, sir. Edeard gave the Grand Master a formal bow, frowning at the man's back. The Grand Council is taking sides over me?

'A drink tonight? Chae asked. 'This victory is probably more significant for you than Arminel's was. It shows the gangs you're not going away. That needs to be celebrated properly.

'No thank you, I have a date.

'Ah, good for you, lad. Enjoy it while you can, while you're young. They turn sour when they get older.

'Who?

'Women. All of them.

* * * * *

'Is everyone in this city a cynic? Edeard asked that evening.

Jessile pulled a beer bottle out of the wicker hamper she'd brought. 'Who's cynical?

'Everybody, so it seems. Or maybe I'm just paranoid.

She smiled sweetly. 'You probably are.

'Thanks. Edeard took the bottle and flopped down on to the maisonette's heavy old couch. He felt exhausted, even though all he'd done was sit around in court all day. Victory should have perked him up, yet all it seemed to have done was raise another bout of questions and doubt. How he longed for things to be as they were before Birmingham Pool. Life had been so much simpler then.

'Put your feet on the stool, I'll pull your boots off.

He leant back and did as he was told. It was nice having Jessile around. After that final night with Ranalee he'd almost sworn off family girls for life. Except he remembered how genuinely nice Jessile was, almost the opposite of Ranalee. She was undemanding. Enthusiastic in bed. And discreet. At least she was now. Which was a good thing, he reflected. He was desperate to recover some of his public dignity after those months of excess following Birmingham Pool.

Her fiance hadn't been in the city for three days before he was sent back out again, much to her dismay. They hadn't even managed to set a day for the wedding. So in the meantime, she was happy to carry on seeing him — just not so visibly.

Two lonely people basically, he thought. There were few mornings when he didn't look out of the window, searching the brighter skies which would signal Salrana's return.

He glanced guiltily at the letter propped up in one of the maisonette's alcoves. It had arrived yesterday. Salrana had written it three weeks earlier. That was how long a letter took to reach

Makkathran from Tralsher province. In it she explained how she might have to stay on for a few more weeks. The Mothers were desperate for help, she said, and she couldn't let them down. There were so many people who looked to the Church for help in Ufford.

'Lian got twenty-five years, Edeard said as they sat down to supper. His ge-monkeys had been busy preparing the food the chefs in her mansion had packed in the hamper. 'The others got between three and eleven years.

'That's good, she said.

'Really? Have you noticed a drop in crime?

'Did you mention something about cynicism?

'Sorry.

'He's going to be another six weeks at least.

'Who? Oh. Right.

'I got a letter this morning. They're staying on in Reutte province to help another town. Eriach, I think.

'Yeah, it's on the western side of the Ulfsen Mountains.

'You know it?

'I passed it on my way here.

'Well, they've got bandit trouble now.

Edeard looked up from the asparagus and kafish quiche. 'What sort of trouble?

'Raids on hamlets, and the roads aren't safe. Honestly, the militia pushed them out of the estates around Tetuan and they just pop up again a few miles away.

'They have a habit of doing that. Frightening them away isn't good enough. They'll just come back later. If you want to be rid of them, you've got to push them back and back until they've nowhere to run to any more. Don't give them anywhere to hide. Then you can go in for the kill. He stopped. 'That might work.

'What?

'Nothing, just an idea.

'There's not even any certainty that Eustace will come back after Eriach. Suppose the bandits appear somewhere else? She started turning her silver vine ring, unconsciously rubbing the diamond.

He put his hand on hers, squeezing lightly. 'He'll be back.

'Thanks. I know.

'Did he mention if they have guns?

'Guns? No. He hasn't said. Do you think it's likely? He might get shot!

'Some bandits have guns. Not many, Edeard lied quickly, allowing her to sense a calm confidence in his thoughts. 'They just get hold of the odd pistol from farms, that kind of thing. To be honest, pistols have a very limited range anyway.

'Oh. She gave him a nervous smile. 'Don't scare me like that.

'Sorry. No sane bandit is going to tangle with a mounted militia squad. He'll be perfectly safe. You'll be married off by midsummer.

'I hate that he had to go. It's all politics. Mayor Owain only sent the militia so he can look strong and benevolent at the same time. That's what Daddy said. And I'll bet Owain's Guild merchants are there following the militia around, selling guns to the locals.

'See? Everyone's a cynic'

She grinned at him. 'I guess we are.

'Owain might have sent the militia for political gain, but it's been beneficial. Reutte needed help. The local sheriffs couldn't cope. Quite a few farming families have arrived in the city since New Year. I spoke with some of them; they were forced off their land.

'I know.

'He will come back.

'Thank you, Edeard. You're a lovely man.

After the meal they settled down to read a book Jessile had brought. Kadril's Voyage, which told of the legendary merchantmen captain who'd opened up the trade route to the south, finding a navigable route through the Straits of Gathsawal. Edeard enjoyed the tales of ocean life and fights against pirates, even though he suspected the author had enlivened the tales somewhat. They took it in turns to read to each other, slowly sipping red wine as the coal in the stove hissed and snapped. Edeard felt the tensions drain away from him. This was what he wanted his life to be like. Success in the courts, pushing the gangs from the streets, then home. Not back to the maisonette, but a true home, one with Salrana, maybe. He'd even seen a few vacant buildings in Cobara and Igadi that were possibles. They would need the room eventually, he hoped, for the children. Children who would know a city without the shadow of crime and the excesses of the families; playing in streets and parks where they were safe. And it could be done, his idea had been growing since supper, expanding in that lazy way that certainties possessed.

'You look a lot happier, Jessile murmured. She closed the book and leaned in against him.

'You have a soothing voice, he told her.

Her nose rubbed against his cheek. 'My voice, is it?

'Yes.

'I wish you had a piano in here. I'm quite an accomplished player, you know. Music would be extra soothing.

It was that casual grumble which made him smile so merrily. She really had no idea how little a constable earned; on his pay it would take months for him to buy a piano. 'We'd never get it up the stairs.

'Never mind. She kissed him, her thick hair brushing his face and neck. 'I bought a new satin chemise today. It's not very big, I'm afraid. Would you like to see me wearing it? Well… trying to wear it.

'Yes.

'Say please.

'Please, he croaked hoarsely.

She got up, showing him a truly immoral smile. 'Back in a minute. She picked up the hamper and disappeared into the bathroom.

Edeard took a breath to recover. He was beaming in anticipation as he rolled off the couch and ordered the light down to a cosy glimmer. At which point he became aware of Vilby walking over the bridge into Silvarum. 'Oh Lady, no! he groaned.

'What's the matter? Jessile called out.

'Er, I'm really sorry about this, but—

* * * * *

The squad was waiting where Edeard had told them, huddled together under an overhanging wall on Golard Street, where the pavement was only four feet wide. It was dark, with the nearest light coming from behind the undulations of a nebuly moulding on the wall two houses down.

'Saria was furious with me, Boyd was saying. 'It was her great-aunt's annual ball, half the District Master families were there. He was dressed in a splendid cerise frock coat, with a white shirt that was all lace frills. Silver buckles gleamed on his knee-length boots.

'Sounds like you're making social progress, Kanseen said. Her face wore a faint frown, she was glancing along the street as if searching for something.

'I didn't know he was going to call us away so suddenly.

'He was really worried about this, Macsen said. 'That's not like our great Waterwalker.

'Well you didn't help, Dinlay said. 'Not the way you were shouting at Edeard the other day. All those wild accusations…

'Hey, I'm entitled, Macsen said, raising a finger for emphasis and waving it right in front of Dinlay's face. 'That was my mother they attacked. And it's his fault.

'No it's not.

'Oh yeah, if he knows so much like he claims, then he should have warned us. If I'd known what was happening I could have stopped those thugs attacking my mother.

'We didn't tell him what was happening to us, Kanseen said. 'We're all to blame.

'He doesn't trust us. lie couldn't even be arsed telling us about the ge-eagles. We're his decoys, that's all.

Edeard dissolved his concealment, appearing beside Macsen's shoulder. 'No you're not.

'Ho Lady! Macsen jumped back in shock.

'Where in Honious did you come from? Dinlay demanded.

'I've been here all the time.

'You heard… Dinlay's thin face blushed hotly.

'Now do you understand? This is not a game. I want to change this city. I want your help to do that.

'And you think that's the way to get it? Macsen asked.

'If a couple of insults and a bad temper can put an end to this squad, then we were never going to achieve anything. We were just some kids thrown together with nothing special holding us. I'm hoping that's not true. I'm not pretending I don't have a weakness. I made an arse of myself chasing girls. I'm too frightened to tell you everything I know about Ivarl. I didn't know how to handle the warehouse raid so I went along with Ronark's suggestion. And I'm certainly not sure where we go from here, although I've got an idea. He shrugged. 'That's it.

Macsen glanced round the others, unhappiness shining though his shielded mind. 'All right, that's honest enough. Crap on inspiration, mind. But I'm willing to see what you want to show us.

'Me too, Kanseen said.

'Yeah, Dinlay said.

Boyd gave a soft chuckle. 'Count me in.

'Thank you, Edeard said.

'Do we get to learn the concealment trick? Boyd asked eagerly. 'I always thought it was a city myth.

'Oh you get to know it, Edeard said. 'You're going to need it. Ready for the gift?

'Yeah! the squad chorused.

After half an hour practising along the street, Edeard led them into the Black Horse tavern. They weren't perfect. Boyd's concentration kept slipping; Macsen's farsight wasn't half as good as ho always claimed, which meant he couldn't combine the ability with his third hand in a way that was truly effective. But Kanseen and Dinlay were surprisingly adept. Apart from the occasional lapse from Boyd and Macsen, when their ghost-like shape would flare out of nowhere, they remained invisible, certainly from casual scrutiny. The only way they knew where each other was standing was by a tiny direct longtalk, the kind of thing they'd practised a hundred times out on the streets. Edeard helped by dimming the tavern's lights around them, producing long deep shadows. They crept between them, passing unseen through the back rooms.

Edeard's nerves built with every step up to the second floor where the private rooms were. Macsen was playing along for now, but how he'd react to this… Without Macsen, the squad would be seriously weakened, and he was going to need their full strength if he was to have any hope of success over the gangs.

'Ready? Edeard asked outside the door.

'Yeah, Dinlay whispered.

Then Edeard heard a metallic click — a pistol's safety catch pulled back. 'Is one of you armed?

'Yes, Boyd said.

'Well, actually, all of us are, Dinlay said defensively. 'We thought we were going to be raiding a gang hideout.

'Oh Lady, no, no, this isn't a raid. It's not actually dangerous, we just have to catch them in the act. So put the pistols away, please.

Several grumbles rolled along the apparently empty corridor. Fumbling sounds followed.

'Ready? Edeard asked again, reflecting on the impossibility of acting as a team when you couldn't actually see each other. 'Go!

As one they dissolved their concealment. Edeard used his third hand to smash the lock, and flung the door open. The squad charged in.

Vilby's face was a mask of astonishment and fright; his head lifted off the pillows to stare at the squad. He couldn't move any further, his own handcuffs fastened his wrists to the odd metal hoops driven into the wall above the bed. Nanitte, who was straddling his chest holding a jar of honey in one hand, turned round and let out a soft gasp of shock. Then she saw one of the intruders was Macsen, and her face registered real concern. 'Ladycrapit.

Edeard could sense the longtalk yell she was directing out towards the other end of the city. It wasn't much: 'They've caught me with Vilby. I never sensed them coming, they were bloody invisible. His own face was part of the accompanying gift she sent. No one replied to her.

'Don't come back to the station, Edeard told Vilby. 'And get you and your family out of the tenement by tomorrow evening. Only constables live there.

'But—

Edeard closed his third hand round the man's chest. Honey squelched out around the edges of his grip. 'Don't, he growled in warning.

Vilby sagged in defeat.

Kanseen lifted an eyebrow as she gazed at the tacky mess covering the man's groin. 'Well, thanks a whole lot, Vilby, I'll never be able eat a meringue again.

Boyd sneered down. 'You know, you really need to leave them in the oven longer, a proper meringue is never that sticky in the middle.

'Is that right? an interested Dinlay asked as they turned and walked out of the door.

'Oh yes. Any half-wit baker's apprentice knows that.

Macsen hadn't said a word. He was staring at Nanitte, who returned the look unflinchingly.

'Come on, Kanseen said. She put her hand on Macsen's shoulder, and gently propelled him out of the room.

Edeard gave Vilby a derisory wink and closed the door as he left.

* * * * *

The waitress in the Olivan's Eagle was puzzled by the squad's lack of good humour as they clustered together in the corner booth. Edeard tipped her a brass farthing, and scooped the beer glasses off her tray with his third hand. He put the first one down in front of Macsen. 'Sorry, he said cautiously.

Macsen shook his head and put his hand round the glass. He stared intensely into the dark amber liquid with its thick head.

'It's a war of who knows most, Edeard said.

'Lady, Kanseen grunted heavily. 'I think we get that now, Edeard. She took a long drink of beer. 'Was anyone I've…?

'No.

'That's lucky. For them. I would have ripped their balls off and stuffed them where the sun doesn't shine.

'Urn, Boyd ventured. 'About Saria?

'A lovely girl. Don't worry.

'So it's just me, then is it? Macsen said bitterly. He was still glaring at his beer. He hadn't managed to look at Dinlay since they'd left the Black Horse.

'Not exactly, Edeard cringed as he gave Dinlay an awkward glance. 'Chiaran.

'No! Dinlay squawked in horror. 'She's a constable.

Boyd turned his head slowly to give Dinlay a fascinated look. 'Who's Chiaran?

'Her father is in debt to one of Ivarl's lieutenants in Fiacre. She's helping to pay it off.

'She can't be.

'You never said anything about a Chiaran to me, Boyd said with a rising smile. 'You sly old thing.

'Sorry, Edeard said.

'Oh Lady!

'Well, aren't you the clever one? Macsen said, still not looking up.

'Actually, no, Edeard said. He took a breath. 'I'm sure you all remember Ranalee.

Kanseen actually spilt some of her beer. 'What?

Edeard's shoulders slumped. 'The Gilmorn family has strong ties with Ivarl. It's all part of the way the port works — I discovered afterwards. Too late afterwards, unfortunately. I think that's how Ivarl found out I knew about Vilby. He couldn't quite bring himself to tell them about that night.

'Wait, he knows you knew?

'Yes.

'But… Oh, Lady be damned. She took another gulp of beer.

'So, Boyd said with a frown. 'If he knew that you knew he… I don't get it.

Why would he go ahead with the Chemistry Guild robbery if you both knew what was happening?

'I told you it's a war of who knows the most, and then how you apply it.

Macsen finally looked up, fixing Boyd with an icy glare. 'Get it now? All of this is a giant pissing contest between Ivarl and Edeard, which of them can outsmart the other.

'Which is why you have to understand, Edeard said firmly. 'Fully understand.

'Well I understand now, Macsen said bitterly. He faced up to Dinlay. 'I'm the idiot who got you shot. Me!

'Hardly, Dinlay said with a nervous guffaw.

'I told her. I said we were going to do undercover work after we talked about watching Boltan Street.

'When did we say that? Edeard asked.

'Day we caught Arminel in the store room, Kanseen supplied.

'Oh yeah.

'Arminel used it, didn't he? Macsen said. 'He used that to mount the ambush at Birmingham Pool.

'We don't know anything for certain, Edeard said. 'What I was trying to show you tonight is just how smart and organized Ivarl is. Not only that, his organization is big, it reaches right across the city.

'You've made your point, Kanseen said. 'We were naive. That'll stop now.

'I'm sorry, Macsen said. He was pleading with Dinlay now.

'You didn't shoot me.

'It was my fault.

'No it wasn't, Edeard said. 'You all know Arminel, what he's like. If they hadn't come after us that day, it would've been another. You don't send people like Nanitte to spy on us unless you're making a real effort to eliminate us.

'And Chiaran, Dinlay said forlornly.

'And Chiaran, Edeard conceded. 'That means he's still out to get us, even more since the warehouse. It's going to get ugly.

'She was beautiful, Dinlay said. He took off his glasses and polished the lenses intently.

'We're all good, though, aren't we, Waterwalker? Boyd said cautiously. 'Tell us that at least. Tell us nobody here tonight belongs to Ivarl.

'We're all good, Edeard promised them.

'Nanitte, Macsen moaned, and slumped back into his seat. 'What about the others? Have any more girls belonged to Ivarl?

Edeard grinned. 'I don't have the time to keep track of that list.

'Nor your own, it would seem, Kanseen observed archly.

'Nor mine, he conceded.

'Lady, this is wonderful, she muttered. 'We have to seek your consent for our lovers now. It's like I'm living at home again and getting my mother's approval.

'What were her criteria? Boyd asked eagerly.

'Well, she wouldn't have let you through the front door, that's for sure.

Edeard laughed. 'It's not that bad.

Kanseen gave him a level gaze. 'Yes it is.

'You don't have to tell me who you're with every night. And as of now, I'm not going to farsight. Just…

'Be paranoid?

'I was going to say cautious. If you want me to check out a new acquaintance, I will.

'Paranoid is good, Boyd said. 'Unlike all of you, I, of course, chose very well.

'You had no choice at all, Kanseen said. 'Saria chose you. She makes all the decisions for you.

'She does not! I am my own master.

Kanseen reached forward and plucked the sleeve of his remarkable frock coat. 'Did you choose this? Did you even pay for it?

Boyd turned red as the others laughed.

'So what do we do now? Dinlay asked.

'And he does mean: "we", Macsen said. 'That's right isn't it?

'Yes, Dinlay stumbled. 'It's just… Chiaran.

'Get rid of her, Macsen said harshly. 'She's not your girlfriend, she's his whore. Do it with longtalk, that's nice and insulting. In fact, I'll be happy to do it for you.

'Would you?

Macsen turned to Edeard. 'Do you want to use her first?

'No, he said. 'No, it's tempting. But if we're going to do this I don't want us stooping to his methods.

'It's not going to be that clean, Kanseen warned.

'I know. He smiled round at his squad. His friends. 'But we'll manage.

'So what exactly do we do now? Boyd asked.

'I've been thinking about this, Edeard told them. 'The biggest part of Ivarl's income comes from the protection rackets. He has teams in every district intimidating shopkeepers and stallholders. I want to push them out. I want to start by making Jeavons clean, then keep going, force them to retreat across the city until we've got them penned up in Sampalok.

'Then what? Kanseen said. 'And how would you make them retreat there? Do we intimidate them? They'll fight back.

'I don't know the details. We need to consult with Grand Master Finitan about how to begin such a scheme, and the politics behind it. We'd certainly need Grand Council support, maybe even a new law.

'All right, she said. 'Even if you get him to support you 111 council, and we get all the station captains to play along, and a hundred other crappy impossible details sorted out, how do we find them? There must be hundreds of gang members working this racket. Are we all going snooping round the House of Blue Petals?

'Ah. Edeard gave them a rather smug grin, and reached into his tunic to produce a thick black notebook. He put it down between all the beer glasses. 'You must be talking about this list I made of all the names I overheard.

* * * * *

'A grand alliance against gang-related crime, Grand Master Finitan said. 'Nice idea. He turned in his high backed chair to stare out through his office window.

Edeard and the squad sat in smaller chairs in front of the big desk, all of them trying not to gape at the remarkable view offered by the office's vantage point.

'Do you think the Council would support it, sir? Edeard asked. If it hadn't been for the tea and biscuits served to them by the ge-chimps, Edeard could well imagine himself as part of some lowly apprentice class being lectured by the Grand Master.

'If you went up to individual Masters and Representatives to ask them for help expelling the gangs, each and every one would look you straight in the eye and pledge their full and unswerving support, save Bise, of course. Privately, any new law to banish suspected gang members wouldn't even get read out in Council, never mind voted on.

'Why not? Dinlay asked.

'Expense. Legally proving a man is a gang member would consume a lot of time in court, and an even greater amount of lawyer's time, which never comes cheap. And what would you effectively be accusing them of? If you can prove membership you can prove felony, which can get them carted off to the mines anyway. No, you need some other way.

Edeard groaned. It had seemed like such a good idea.

Finitan swung back to face them. 'Don't give up, Edeard. You're the Waterwalker. We all expect great things of you now. He produced an enigmatic smile. 'More than creeping around bordellos at night, anyway.

Edeard blushed.

'So what would you advise to get rid of them? Kanseen asked.

'If you want anything done, you need to make it to everyone's advantage. Support is essential, the wider the support, the better chance you have of succeeding.

'But the Council must have been trying to get rid of the gangs for years, Edeard protested. 'Why has there been no progress?

'I'm going to sound boring on the subject, but: expense. Not just in financial terms. Consider how Ivarl's lieutenants control the dockers. The merchant families have a nice quiet arrangement with Ivarl, they pay him to keep the dockers in line. Take that control away, and the dockers will demand decent pay, and quite right too. It's a skill controlling teams of ge-monkeys to remove the contents of a ship's hold, or fill it. So they get more money, which has to come from the ship owner and warehouse merchant and shopkeeper. That cost will be passed on to the customer. The price of everything goes up. Admittedly not by much, but it's the start of an uncontrollable reaction, a destabilization if you like. Why shift the balance of power in an arrangement that works? And the dockers are just the tip of the iceberg. So many things would change.

Once more, Edeard remembered what Ranalee had said. External change is revolution. 'But the gangs are wrong, he insisted. 'The law must prevail.

'Yes indeed. But you of all people should know by now how entrenched they are in the city.

'There must be a way.

'Find a method of gathering a broad spectrum of support, Finitan said. 'From there you can go forward.

'I need the support of the Council.

'Ultimately, yes. But you must start at the other end, down on the street where the gangs are felt every day. Tell me, before you decided to mount your crusade, what was happening out there? I don't mean among the rich and worthless of my class, but people who were directly affected by the gangs and their violence? People who had given up looking to the constables for aid?

'They were forming street associations, Boyd said.

'Yes. Vigilantism, which the Council also frowned upon, not least because such associations circumvented the law.

Edeard tried to understand what Finitan was hinting at. 'We support the street associations?

'No. The station captains don't approve, for the simple reason that street associations undercut their authority, and that of the courts.

'Then what? he asked, confused.

'You can't support them, but there's nothing to stop you sharing a drink in the tavern after duty, now is there?

'Ah, Macsen said. 'And we might just discuss who is going round traders to extort money and what they look like and where they live.

'Indeed you might.

'And those private citizens are within their right to call for assistance when the gangs do come calling, Kanseen said.

'If they knew for sure that a constable squad would come, they would be more inclined to cooperate, Finitan agreed.

'And if cooperation at that level were subsequently seen to work, Edeard mused.

'It would be supported, Finitan concluded. 'A support among people who are not easily bought off by political horse trading. Pressure would grow on the District Representatives to continue and expand the campaign.

'But we're still back to the original problem, Edeard said. 'Arresting them and hauling them into court. Each case takes weeks and costs a fortune. Not to mention tying us up as we sit around for days waiting to be called as a witness. If we remove one of them, Ivarl will send ten to replace him. I need to push the whole lot of them out of Jeavons.

Finitan eyed the genistar egg sitting on his desk. 'What you need is a legal option. Have you consulted a lawyer?

* * * * *

'This is the joy of a constitution that has reigned supreme for an unbroken two thousand years, Master Solarin said contentedly. He was sitting behind his desk, which was piled with folders that strove to mimic the towers of Eyrie. Edeard had trouble seeing him they were so high. 'You can find a law to cover every eventuality. Politicians love to pass laws. It shows the people they are working hard on their behalf. He coughed, and reached for a lozenge in the little brown paper bag under a skewed tower of green and blue folders.

'Then it can be done? Dinlay asked eagerly.

Edeard had brought Dinlay with him, while Macsen and Kanseen went to meet Setersis. Not that he didn't trust Dinlay with anything, it was just that Macsen would be better suited to deal with the chief of the Silvarum stallholders association. Boyd, of course, was with Isoix, discussing their notion with the Jeavons chamber of trade.

'Such impatience, Master Solarin muttered disapprovingly. One of his ge-monkeys brought a thick leather-bound tome over to his desk, and placed it gently on the huge square of blotting paper in front of the ancient lawyer.

When he'd been shown in by a legal apprentice, Edeard had thought the whole office had been built from books. Each of the five walls were covered from floor to ceiling in shelving, holding thousands of volumes of law. There might have been a window, but it had long since been blocked over. The ceiling had three blunt stalactites that shone orange, giving the books a dingy brown hue.

Master Solarin opened the book. He licked the tip of his forefinger, and began to turn the pages. Edeard wanted to volunteer to help. It was all so painfully slow. He deliberately didn't turn to look at Dinlay.

'Ah ha, Master Solarin said happily. 'I thought I remembered this one.

'Sir? Edeard asked.

'I believe I may have found what it is you are looking for.

Edeard leaned forward. The page the book was open at had greyed over the decades, but the ink was still firm and black.

'Here we jolly well go, Master Solarin said. His shaky hand traced a line of the print, his mouth working silently.

'What does it say? Dinlay pleaded.

Edeard shot him a warning glance.

'It says, Constable Dinlay, that nine hundred and thirty two years ago, the Grand Council passed the by-law of district exclusions. This is an edict which allows the District Master or District Representative to declare the right of admittance revoked for any person deemed detrimental to the sanctity of the locale. Issuance of such warrant may be duly authorized by the District Master or District Representative on their own authority, without supervision by a judge or magistrate. He looked up from the book. 'I believe it was proposed in Council by the District Master of Cobara so that he might prevent an over-amorous suitor from wooing his only daughter. If you remember your history, Constable Dinlay, the two young lovers in question were Henaly and Gistella.

'Really? Dinlay said with a happy smile. He turned to Edeard. 'They eloped on the Oxmaine, and founded Love's Haven, and planted the vineyards there. That province still produces some of the best wines on Querencia.

'Wonderful, Edeard said, resisting the impulse to use his third hand to give Dinlay a good smack. 'So we can use this law to ban gang members from coming in to Jeavons and Silvarum, without having to legally prove they're gang members?

'Any person for any reason, provided their name is on the warrant and signed by the District Master or Dist—

'Yes! The District Representative. How do I get them to sign?

'Oh Dear Lady, were my lectures completely in vain?

'You petition them, Dinlay said proudly.

'Indeed, constable Dinlay. I am glad not all of my words fell on deaf ears. As a resident of Makkathran you have under most ancient law the right to make a petition of enactment. Such that a District Master, or- Master Solarin paused for emphasis, 'a District Representative, can require the constable station commander of their district to enforce whatever law the supplicant believes has been violated. Now, as the assistance of the citizenry is implicitly required, as stipulated in the articles of formalization of the constabulary six hundred and twenty-two years ago, this elder right of petition has subsequently fallen into disuse. However, it has never been retired.

'You mean we can use this loophole to get the District Master to sign the warrants? Edeard asked.

The skin of Master Solarin's ancient face produced even more creases as he frowned in disapproval. 'You will never become a lawyer, Constable Edeard, for which blessing my Guild will doubtless be most relieved. There is no such thing as a loophole. Lawyers merely advise our clients on how to apply laws and the precedents they establish.

'Thank you, sir. Edeard rose from his chair.

'A word of caution, my young friend.

'Sir?

'You can petition them to enact a law, but you cannot force them to undertake said enactment. To obtain those signatures, you will need their cooperation.

'I understand, sir. My colleagues are working on that.

* * * * *

It was a big petition. Edeard had to back up the initial street association meetings personally, persuading the stallholders and shopkeepers and tavern owners and merchants, and a dozen other tradespeople that his idea was worth trying. With his small base of political allies like Setersis, Ronark, and Finitan, and his own reputation, he began to gain the backing he needed. A week after the meeting with Solarin, the Jeavons chamber of trade, and the Silvarum chamber of trade simultaneously laid down a formal request to see their respective District Masters and Representatives.

They convened in the library of District Master Vologral's mansion. Edeard had only met the Jeavons Master twice before, at formal events. There, they'd made small talk, trying to weigh each other up. He was heartened by the fact Vologral was an all of Finitan on the Grand Council.

Vologral and the other three Masters stood behind a long table, listening to the official request as made by the speakers of the chambers of trade, then he turned to Edeard. 'Can this work?

'I believe so, sir, Edeard said. 'We know probably seven out often involved in the protection rackets, certainly in our districts. Those are the ones we already have warrants for. If the gangs send in new faces to collect their money, we'll know who they are straight away, and we can add them to the list.

'But keeping them out… Vologral looked apprehensive.

'In total there are fifteen bridges into the two districts. Each one will have a pair of constables on duty from now on to enforce the exclusion. We just need the legal basis.

'And the mooring platforms? How many of them? You can't guard them all.

'There will be three permanent patrols inspecting the mooring platforms at random; in addition our ge-eagles will be scouting constantly. I'd point out that a court can levy a considerable fine to any gondolier who violates a city by-law. We'll need to make an example of the first few cases, possibly with confiscation of their craft. After that, they'll won't be so keen to help the gangs.

'I can imagine the Gondolier Guild's reaction to that, Deveron, the Silvarum Representative muttered.

'The Waterwalker is making an effort to help us, Setersis said quietly. 'I for one am happy to cooperate. Deveron looked at him, and said no more.

'Very well, Vologral said. 'I am provisionally inclined to grant your petition. I will sign the warrants. However, I give you notice, Waterwalker, that I will review the situation in three weeks' time, after the Festival of Guidance. If I am not satisfied that racketeering has subsided, or you are not holding the line against the gangs, they will be revoked. Do you understand?

'Yes sir. Thank you, sir.

'Do you have the warrants here?

Edeard beckoned Felax and the other three probationary constables who were waiting at the back of the delegation. Each of them came forward carrying a tall stack of paper.

'Great Lady, Vologral grunted when he saw how many warrants the young constables had brought. 'I didn't know I was excluding half the city.

'Seventy three people to start with, sir, Edeard said.

'Gentlemen, Vologral said to his fellow Masters, 'let's hope we don't get writer's cramp. He sat down at the long table.

'What happens to the rest of the city? Deveron asked. 'Aren't we just exporting the problem?

'They'll wait to see if it works, Setersis said. 'If it does, they'll join in quickly enough. Decent people have had enough.

Vologral signed the first warrant. 'So suppose you do succeed? Exclude them from everywhere but Sampalok, for I know damn well that Bise will never sign one of these. What then?

'I imagine that will be up to the Grand Council, sir.

'Ha! Vologral gave Edeard a sly smile of approval as he reached for another warrant. 'Not such a country boy after all, eh?

* * * * *

It began the very next morning. Ronark changed the squad shifts, which in itself was fairly historic; dispatching five constables to each of the bridges leading into Jeavons from Drupe, Tycho and Majate. Silvarum's station captain did the same with bridges to Haxpen and Padua.

As dawn broke, the constables took up position. News of the exclusion had spread in that lightning-fast way any novelty did in Makkathran, especially one concerning the Waterwalker. A lot of people turned up to see if it was actually going to happen. At some bridges they applauded when the constables appeared. Sandwiches and hot tea and coffee were produced and offered to the new guard squads. Then everyone settled down to see what the gangs would do.

At midday, eight men walked across Golden Park. They were young and tough, knew how to handle themselves in a fight, and had a strong third hand. By the time they reached the district's southern point adjoining Birmingham Pool there were five ge-eagles orbiting high above them. Only two of which belonged to the constables.

'Getting a real burst of nostalgia here, Macsen sang out as Edeard's squad jogged along Macoun Street.

'Nostalgia is a happy sensation, Kanseen grunted. 'This isn't.

Edeard tended to agree with her. He glanced at Isoix's bakery as they sped past. 'You all right? he asked Dinlay with a direct longtalk whisper.

'Oh Lady, yeah. Dinlay's thoughts were aflame with expectation. They'd spent the morning walking round the two districts on a random route, making themselves visible, knowing there would be a showdown at some time. It should have been a time of high excitement for Edeard, but he'd got another letter from Salrana; she'd been delayed again.

He ran out of Macoun Street on to the broad sweep of the alameda. The weeping hasfol trees were just budding, a multitude of blue and yellow striped leaves expanding out of their whorls to greet the warmer skies. Right ahead of them was the blue and silver bridge which looped high over the waters of the Great Major Canal to Golden Park. Sergeant Chae was standing at the foot of it, giving Edeard's slightly out-of-breath squad a nonchalant look. 'I'm insulted, he said loftily. 'You don't trust me?

'Procedure, sir, Macsen puffed. 'We're the reinforcements.

'But I haven't called for you, yet.

Edeard gestured at the bridge. 'All yours, sir.

'Thank you. Chae glanced round at the eager crowd that was building. 'This is nostalgic, eh? He turned and led the four constables of his squad up on to the bridge.

'Have any of them got guns? Boyd asked.

'I can't sense any, Kanseen said. 'Edeard?

'No. Nothing. Ivarl will want it to appear like they're just ordinary citizens. He needs to make us the bad guys.

'Hey Waterwalker, a young boy yelled out cheekily. 'Are you going to do it again?

'Not today.

'Oww, go on, please. Run over the pool. I didn't see it before.

The eight men had reached the other end of the bridge. Chae and his squad were standing on the apex, arms folded. Waiting patiently.

'This is a different day, Edeard said out loud. The crowd were dividing their attention between him and the gang members over on Golden Park. 'This day we banish the gangs from your streets and lives.

The gang men stepped onto the bridge.

'You! Chae bellowed. 'Pocklan, we know you and your friends. Come no further.

The eight men kept walking forward.

'I have a warrant signed by the District Master of Jeavons excluding you from this district.

'I have done nothing wrong, Pocklan shouted back. 'I am a free man. I may go where I please in this city. That is the law.

'Halt and turn around. Go back where you scum came from.

Boyd nudged Edeard. 'Look who's here, he growled.

Edeard glanced over where Boyd indicated. Master Cherix was standing at the front of the crowd, watching intently.

'We knew they'd try to quash the warrants in the courts, Dinlay said.

'Please don't let this come down to lawyers, Kanseen moaned.

'I'm visiting my mother who lives in Jeavons, Pocklan said, appealing reasonably to the silent spellbound crowd. 'She has only a few days to live. Would you deny me that right?

'What a load of bollocks, Dinlay said under his breath.

'Piss off, Chae said, jabbing his finger forcefully back down the bridge. 'Now.

'Sergeant, Master Cherix said. It wasn't a particularly loud voice, but the authority behind it carried a long way.

Chae turned round, an expression of utter disgust on his face, backed up by some very strong thoughts escaping past his shield. 'Yes? Sir?

'I am this fine gentlemen's legal counsel. May I see this so-called exclusion warrant please?

'It's back at the station.

'Then until you produce it, and let him see it, as is his right, my client is free to go about his business in whatever district of this city he chooses. As do his equally innocent colleagues.

'All right then, Chae said, and jabbed his finger at Pocklan again. 'Wait here. I'll send a runner.

'No, Sergeant, Cherix said. 'You cannot detain my client without just cause. It is your responsibility to bring the warrant to him. Until it is read to him, he is free to go as he pleases.

'I can't run around the district after him and the others, Chae said.

'That is not my client's problem, Master Cherix said affably.

Pocklan's smirk was indecent. 'Step aside, he told Chae.

Edeard walked forward. 'Master Cherix.

'Corporal Edeard. How nice to see you. I believe you can be of some help in this unfortunate matter. Your colleague here was about to act unlawfully. As a constable of this city, I am asking you to see the law is enforced equally and fairly.

'My pleasure.

Master Cherix beckoned Pocklan. 'Come on across the bridge now please my dear chap. You are quite safe with the Water-walker himself guaranteeing your legal rights.

'Were you referring to a warrant like this? Edeard asked innocently. He pulled a roll of parchment out of his tunic.

Master Cherix's unctuous smile flattened as he started to read. 'But this warrant names—

'You. Edeard smiled. 'Yes. And as such, I am required — by law — to assist you out of Jeavons as quickly as possible. He reached out with his third hand.

Master Cherix yelled in consternation as his feet left the ground. The cry turned to pure panic as he kept on rising. The crowd on the alameda gasped as the lawyer soared away over the bridge, continuing to gain height.

'Put me down! Cherix screamed with his voice and longtalk. He was higher than the buildings behind the alameda; higher than the white metal pillars lining Golden Park. Still ascending, The watching ge-eagles had to curve sharply to avoid him.

'Did you hear something? Edeard asked.

'He told you to put him down, Kanseen pronounced solemnly.

'Oh, fair enough, Edeard said. He let go.

Cherix fell out of the sky with a incoherent shriek of fright. He landed in the middle of Birmingham Pool, producing a tremendous splash. The crowd cheered wildly.

Chae turned back to Pocklan. 'Now where were we?

Pocklan gave the sergeant a furious look; then glanced over his shoulder to where an impassive Edeard was waiting. He turned and led his companions back into Golden Park.

Macsen put his arm round Edeard's shoulder, squeezing strongly. 'Now why is it, do you suppose, people you don't like always wind up getting dunked in Birmingham Pool?

'Nostalgia.

* * * * *

Edeard had been looking forward to the Lady's Festival of Guidance for what seemed like most of the winter. His friends, and the girls he'd encountered, were always speaking of it in enthusiastic tones. Firstly, it signalled the onset of summer which, as far as he was concerned, couldn't arrive fast enough. But the main reason was to celebrate those who had passed away in the previous year. Everybody who had lost someone made a small memorial boat out of flowers — of any and every colour except white. Mainly it was the children of a family who made them, producing elaborate and colourful boats up to a yard long. They represented the soul of the departed one.

At midday, the Pythia conducted a service of memorial in tin-Lady's church in Eyrie. When that ended all the flower boats would be placed in the city's canals. The gondoliers, bedecked in white flowers, guided them down to the port singing hymns of commemoration. Gondolas represented the Skylords, who the Lady promised would come to Querencia once again to guide the souls of humans into the welcome embrace of Odin's Sea. At the port, the gondolas would stop, and the flower boats would carry on, drifting out across the waves.

It sounded delightful; especially the evening which was one giant party. Now the day was here, and Edeard dozed fitfully as the dawn came to a clear sky, promising good weather for the festival. Chief Constable Walsfol's longtalk intruded sharply into his thoughts. 'Ugh, sir? he responded groggily as the dregs of yet another bizarre dream drained away. He hadn't known the man had such a powerful longtalk. It made sense, though. After Ranalee, a lot of things about the city hierarchy were clearer to him.

'I need you to report to the Culverit family mansion in Haxpen, Walsfol told him. 'Come at once.

'Yes sir, Edeard said sleepily. 'Er, why?

'I will meet you there and explain the situation. You'd better bring the rest of your squad, too.

Edeard rubbed his eyes. He hadn't got to bed until well after midnight. Late last evening, the Lillylight Street association had spotted a gondola with three known gang members making their way along Victoria Canal. Edeard and a couple of Silvarum constables had intercepted them at a mooring platform on Flight Canal. No resistance had been offered when the men were told to leave, but he'd still kept watch on the gondola as it made its way back down the Great Major Canal.

That was the way of his days now. Constantly alert for attempts to infiltrate racketeers into Jeavons and Silvarum. Called to shops and other businesses when unknown gang members did get through. Two days wasted in court on charges of aggravated psychic assault filed by Master Cherix, who, thankfully, in law was no match for Master Solarin.

He groaned and pushed his feet out from under the nice warm sheets. Jessile shifted round on the springy mattress. 'What? she mumbled.

'Have to go, he said softly, and kissed her forehead.

She moaned again, and curled up tighter. 'I won't be here tonight, have to be with family for the party. See you tomorrow.

'Right. Hut she was already asleep again. He ordered a ge-chimp to bring a fresh set of clothes. While he was struggling into them in the dim light he started to call the others. It was rather satisfying spreading the misery.

Edeard pulled his boots on beside the door, and gave his own flower boat a wistful glance. It wasn't much, a simple frame of card a foot long, over which he'd stuck a dozen red and yellow roses. His friends assured him it was just right, exactly what everyone else constructed. For him it was a belated memorial to Akeem, and all the others of Ashwell village.

He met up with Boyd and Kanseen on the tenement walkway outside. They weren't in the best of moods at being hauled from their beds so early. Edeard couldn't bring himself to look at Kanseen. She hadn't been alone.

'Are we waiting for Dinlay? Boyd asked as they made their way down the stairs.

'He'll join us there.

A smile spread across Boyd's face. 'You mean he was with someone?

'Not our concern, Edeard said, a fraction too sharply. Now he really couldn't look at Kanseen.

'Any idea what this is about? she asked.

'None. But if we're being summoned to the Culverit family by Walsfol himself on this day, you can bet it isn't going to be trivial.

'Julan is the Haxpen District Master, Boyd said. 'He's one of the waverers, isn't he?

'I think so, Edeard said, rubbing his hand over his brow. In truth, he'd lost track of which Master was for them. Their allegiances were very fluid. Lately he'd given up trying to follow the Grand Council machinations, and just prayed Finitan would prevail tomorrow.

Boyd opened the big wrought iron gate at the entrance to tin-tenement. Macsen was waiting outside. He raised an arm in greeting.

'Dinlay's still not over Chiaran, you know, Boyd said cheerfully.

'We all got a nasty shock over Ivarl's methods, Edeard told him as they went out into the street. 'Let's just forget about that and move on, shall we?

Boyd was clearly going to make some other snide comment, he'd even started to open his mouth when a voice cut across the empty street: 'Waterwalker, a woman cried.

She had been sitting up in the doorway of a tailor's shop opposite the tenement. Edeard's farsight had sensed her as they were on the last flight of stairs, but she hadn't been carrying any weapons. She did have three children with her, which was mildly unusual at this time of day, but not anything to concern himself over. He'd assumed she was simply bright and early for the festival. Now she came striding across the street, pulling the sleepy miserable children with her. The eldest was no more than five, while the youngest, a girl, was barely old enough to walk.

'Where do I go, Waterwalker? she demanded belligerently. 'Tell me that, eh? Where?

'What? Edeard asked, very confused. Macsen was hurrying over to them.

'How will my children eat? Ask him, Dannil, go on, ask the great Waterwalker where your next meal is coming from. The middle child, a boy in a ragged green pullover and worn grey trousers was thrust forward. He looked up at Edeard and his lip began to quake. He burst into tears. 'I want me da! he wailed.

'What? Edeard asked again.

'Eddis, my husband, the woman barked. 'You exiled him. Threw him out of his own house. We live in Fonscale Street. Now you bastards come along and tell him he's banned from Silvarum, where we've lived for seven years. He can't come home. Can't come to the house my family has lived in for three centuries. What kind of a law is that, eh? So you tell me, where do I go? How do I feed the children without their father. Eh? Answer me, you backward country shite.

Edeard just stared at her, his mind a shocked blank. Boyd groaned, and rolled his eyes up, appealing to the Lady. 'Oh crapit, he groaned.

Kanseen was having none of it. 'How did he feed them before? she asked. 'What job did your husband have?

'Go to Honious, bitch. You've done this to us. You've ruined our lives.

'What job?

'He's a good man. He put food on the table for us. He loved his kiddies.

'Yours maybe, Kanseen said. 'But he hurt other children, didn't he? Threatened them, hit them, made their parents hand over money they'd worked hard for.

'He never did. She covered the eldest boy's ears. 'Lies. That's what you speak: lies! You'll all go to Honious. Eddis worked in the abattoir on Crompton Alley. Dirty work, hard work that no genistar can do.

'You knew what he did, Kanseen snarled. 'If you miss him, then go to him, follow him to his new home. But remember this, we will wipe the city clean of his kind. After this year, there'll bi-no more of him.

The woman spat at Kanseen, who swatted it away with hoi third hand. All three children were crying now.

'I want you to tell Eddis something from me, Edeard said. 'Tell him that if he leaves the gang behind, if he finds himself a proper job — and there's plenty to be had — he'll be welcome back in Fonscale Street. I'll cancel the warrant myself. That's all he's got to do.

'Screw you! She pulled at her children. 'You know nothing about life. Ivarl will dance on your ashes yet. And no Skylord will ever rescue your soul.

Macsen touched the brim of his hat as she stomped off down the street. 'Thank you, madam, always a pleasure to help the citizenry, but he didn't say it very loud.

'You okay? Kanseen asked.

'Yeah. Edeard gave her a shaky nod. 'Yeah, I suppose m» Lady, how many families have been split up like that?

'Are you serious? an incredulous Kanseen asked. 'What a the families of Eddis's victims? The people you're supposed to helping? Isoix and his children? Don't they deserve some consideration?

'Yes, sorry, he hung his head. 'I just wasn't expecting this to be so hard.

'Cheer up, Boyd said, and put his arm round Edeard. 'It can only get worse.

Edeard was about to remonstrate, then saw Boyd's mocking expression, and he managed a weak smile. 'Much worse.

'Far far worse, Macsen promised.

'Let's go and see what misery and torment Walsfol has in store for us then.

As he set off with his friends, Edeard chastised himself for not expecting such an ambush. The only real surprise was that it hadn't happened earlier. Although they'd managed to add another fifty warrants to the original batch, fifteen had been cancelled. There had been a few genuine cases of mistaken identity, but more than one person in the associations had used the scheme to settle an old grudge. Then there were some traders who'd taken advantage in order to get commercial rivals banned from the district, reducing competition. Each reported case of abuse had to be properly reviewed and sorted out, which took a great deal of time for the constables — but not as long as a court case, as Edeard had to keep pointing out to the grumbling Masters and station captains.

But even with the troubles and abuse and legal challenges and the racketeers' unrelenting attempts to get past, he considered it a success. And in that he wasn't alone. The gangs had made hardly any collections in Jeavons and Silvarum, and only two I aiders had been assaulted before the constables arrived. Makkathran's remaining districts had watched the results keenly. Under continuing pressure the Masters of Haxpen, Lillylight, Drupe, llongo, and Padua were drawing up their own warrants and talking to the station captains about enforcement. In another couple of days, they could well be signed. Tomorrow was the last day of Vologral's three week trial. Not that the District Master and Representatives would have the final say. Not any more. The Grand Council was due to convene to debate the 'disturbance' to city life caused by the reintroduction of the exclusion warrants. Finitan was leading the bloc of Councillors arguing their benefit. If they lost, the warrants would be revoked; and as Finitan had told him, Bise was preparing an act to rescind the original law. He had a lot of tacit support, Finitan said, because no one was sure where the whole thing would end. Was it the Waterwalker's intention to turn Sampalok into a criminal ghetto, cut off from the rest of the city? And exactly how did such a young inexperienced constable come to lead such a campaign in the first place. Politically, the Masters were becoming very nervous of Edeard. Finitan was coming under increasing pressure from his fellow Masters to produce a valid conclusion to the campaign.

Edeard didn't actually have one. When he did think that far ahead, to a time every district had issued warrants, he'd assumed the Grand Council would step in with a final solution. Expulsion was his preferred option, though he wasn't sure how that would be achieved, nor where the gang members would be banished to. He'd just wanted to start the ball rolling, to give people hope. Only now were the true consequences becoming apparent.

Though even he had to laugh when on the day after Cherix received his ducking in Birmingham Pool, District Master Bise very publically signed an exclusion warrant preventing Edeard from entering Sampalok. Less amusing was the dignified announcement from the Pythia saying that she would never prohibit anyone from entering Eyrie to attend the Lady's church. Owain also declared no warrants would apply to Anemone and Majate, so that all citizens would be able to reach the seat of government, a right which Rah himself had laid down. And as for the protestations from the Gondoliers Guild about restricting their trade… There had never been a gondola strike in Makkathran before. Even though it had only lasted a day, it shocked everyone. There were threats that more would be called, especially if the vote in the Grand Council tomorrow didn't go the way the gondoliers wanted. The Dockers Guild had also pitched in with a promise to support the gondoliers.

Thankfully, Edeard was getting a lot of support and encouragement from various traders and merchants. Ordinary people, too, were grateful, if their reaction to the constable squads on bridge duty were anything to go by.

Edeard just wanted tomorrow's Council debate to be over, one way or the other. The weight of expectation that had fallen on him was awesome.

Dinlay was waiting outside the main entrance of the Culverit family mansion. The first rays of sunlight had already reached the highest level of the ten storey ziggurat, to glint on the huge horseshoe arch windows. Five pistol-carrying guards with the family's insignia on their coats opened the grand iron-bound front gate. The squad walked in through the giant archway to find themselves in a broad courtyard. Vivid topaz climbing roses smothered the pillars on every side, while tall granite statues of past Culverit Masters and Mistresses gazed down sternly. An equerry greeted them and ushered them inside. Edeard sighed when confronted with a spiral stair.

'I suppose the family live on the top floor, he muttered to Boyd.

'The Master's family do, of course.

The summit of the mansion was a house larger than the Jeavons constable station, surrounded on each side by a strip of hortus garden. It was the traditional residence of the District Master, with the lower floors occupied by dozens of relatives and household staff and clerks who administered his estates.

As they ascended, Edeard became very conscious of the mood swirling round him. There was anger, predominant in the men, and a great deal of fright and sorrow.

'Something bad has happened here, he said quietly. Macsen gave a short uncomfortable nod of agreement.

Walsfol and Julan were waiting for them on the upper hortus garden that faced the Grand Major Canal. Even so early, the Chief Constable was wearing a pristine tunic, his gold buttons shining brightly in the rising sun. Julan, by contrast, was one of the few aristocrats who showed his age. A hundred and fifty three years made his shoulders sag, and his grey hair thin. He wore a rumpled house robe over his nightshirt. His eyes were red rimmed, and sunken with abject despair.

The squad had brought Edeard up to date with Culverit family gossip on the way over. Now, as never before, they were the subject of intense speculation and discussion within the rest of Makkathran's aristocracy. Master Julan had married very late in life. In itself that wasn't too unusual among his class. It was a truly romantic marriage. Apparently he fell completely in love with his wife (a hundred and eight years his junior) as soon as they were introduced, and was utterly devoted to her until her tragic, untimely death six years ago. Though what scandalized everyone was that the first child she produced had been a daughter, Kristabel, as was their second child, during whose birth she'd died. There was no son to inherit. It was almost without precedent in the city. But to the dismay of Lorin, Julan's younger brother, there was a clause in the Culvert family's legally registered claim to the Haxpen District to allow the lineage continuation through a daughter if there were no sons. The situation had occurred only twice before in Makkathran's two thousand year history.

Consequently, Julan was estranged from a good percentage of his relatives; meanwhile Kristabel was the most desired girl in the city, with every noble son desperate for an introduction. Any party she was due to attend was besieged by potential suitors. 'And Lady, wouldn't you just know it, she's an exceptionally pretty thing, too, Macsen had finished wistfully.

'We have a problem, Walsfol announced as soon as the squad was ushered on to the high terrace. 'No doubt the entire city will know by breakfast, but Mirnatha has been abducted.

Edeard risked a sideways glance at Dinlay.

'The second daughter, Dinlay explained with direct longtalk.

'I'm terribly sorry, sir, Edeard said to Julan. 'Obviously if I can do anything to help, I will.

Julan's distress abated long enough for him to give Edeard a fierce judgmental stare. He held up a small square of paper. 'You can start by explaining this.

Edeard gave him a puzzled look, and appealed to Walsfol. The Chief Constable gently extracted the paper from Julan and handed it to Edeard. 'A ge-eagle delivered it not quite an hour ago.

With a sinking heart, Edeard read the note.

Mirnatha is very sweet. The price of her return alive and still sweet is eight thousand gold guineas. If you agree to our price, fly a yellow and green flag from the Orchard Palace this noon.

The Waterwalker is to deliver our coinage by himself. He will go to Jacob's Hall tavern in Owestorn at midnight. Further instructions will be given to him there. If anyone is with him, or if he tries to snatch her back without paying she will be killed.

'Oh Lady no, Edeard groaned.

'I can't order you to deliver the money, Walsfol said.

'You don't have to, sir, I'll take it of course. Er… do you have the money? he asked Julan. With that much coinage you could buy Rulan province and still have enough left over for a fleet of the fastest merchant vessels.

'It can be found, yes.

'Where's Owestorn?

'It's a village out on the Iguru, Dinlay said. 'Maybe two hours' ride from South Gate.

A long way from any possible help, Edeard realized, and even I can't longtalk that far. 'The note was delivered after Mirnatha was taken, he said delicately. 'Is there any proof that it came from those who hold her?

Julan held up his hand. His fingers clenched a blue ribbon with a long tuft of gold-brown hair. 'This was attached.

'I understand.

Tears were running down the old man's cheeks. 'The ribbon was from her night dress. I know it was. I kissed her goodnight.

I kiss my Mirnatha every night. She is so precious— He began to cry, sobbing helplessly. Walsfol moved to comfort him. 'We'll have her back for you, my friend, be assured. Every effort will be made. The constabulary will not rest until she is in your arms again.

'She is but a child, Julan wailed, 'Six years old! Who could do such a thing? Why? He stared wildly at Edeard. 'Why have they done this? What is your part in this? Why you? Why can't I go? She's my baby.

'I don't know, sir. Somehow, just having so much anguish directed at him made Edeard feel shamed.

'Of course you do, a thin voice snapped.

Edeard's farsight identified her being helped though the doorway behind him out on to the hortus, but he didn't want to turn round.

'It is your fault, Mistress Florrel insisted. 'And yours alone. You caused this with your ridiculous crusade against the gangs. Why couldn't you just leave things well alone? Nobody was being harmed. This city worked perfectly well before you arrived.

Edeard took a deep breath, trying to keep a shield around the growing anger in his mind. Mistress Florrel was in one of her usual archaic black dresses, wearing a tall hat that seemed to have purple fruit growing out of it. A man in fine aristocratic robes was holding her arm as she made her way slowly towards Edeard.

'Lorin, Macsen murmured. 'Julan's younger brother.

Mistress Florrel stood directly in front of Edeard, her shoulders all hunched up as if in sorrow; but still managed to fix him with a merciless stare. 'Well?

'Mistress Florrel.

'What have you got to say for yourself?

'I will bring the girl back and deal with those responsible.

'You will do no such thing. You will hand the money over as you're told. Nothing more. I don't want this made any worse by your wretched stupidity. Officers from the militia will lake full charge of things from now on. Gentlemen of good character and family, that's what we need. Not some country buffoon.

Edeard felt his teeth grinding together.

Boyd put his hand on Edeard's arm, smiling politely. 'We will cooperate in any way we can, Mistress Florrel.

Her eyes narrowed. 'I know you. Saria has taken a shine to you.

'Yes, Mistress.

'Ha, she dismissed him with a flutter of her hand. Her voice took on a tragic tone. 'My dear dear boy, her arms rose up in sympathetic greeting as she shuffled over to Julan; 'how are you coping? This is all too, too terrible.

'She'll come back, Julan managed to stammer.

'We'll make sure of it, brother, Lorin said effusively. 'What has passed between us is nothing now. I am resolute in helping you endure this ordeal.

Julan bobbed his head. 'Thank you, he whispered.

'Come along, Mistress Florrel said. 'Sit down my dear Julan. You family is here to comfort you now. That is what you need. You are no longer alone or surrounded by fools. Go and get him some tea, she told Walsfol imperiously. 'Now my boy, have you enough money to pay the ransom? I will help if not. We simply must get her back to her home and loving family.

Walsfol inclined his head respectfully to Julan as he left the hortus, and signalled the squad to follow. They hurried after him.

'Now what? Edeard asked.

'I hate to concede the point, but Mistress Florrel is right in one respect, Walsfol said. 'This is about you.

'Yes sir, Edeard said miserably.

'Stay here for now in case they get in touch again; and for the Lady's sake keep out of her way, Walsfol said, pointing back through the horseshoe arch in considerable irritation. 'I'm going to convene the station captains. Somebody out there must know where that poor girl is. One of them will talk.

Edeard was looking round the magnificent lounge with its clutter of fabulous artwork and gilded furniture. 'How did they get up here? he asked in bewilderment. 'And then how did they get out again, carrying Mirnatha? In the Lady's name, there are hundreds of people in the mansion, and this is the tenth floor.

'A valid question, Walsfol said in a low voice. 'The captain of the house guard here is called Homelt. Talk to him. The kidnappers must have had some inside help. Take a look round the girl's room. There must be some clue, some evidence we can use to uncover the kidnapper.

'Do you think she's still alive sir?

Walsfol took another guilty look out on to the pleasant hortus. 'Very few kidnapping victims are ever returned. Just enough to make the families and merchants pay out in the hope that their loved one will be the exception.

'So she might still be alive?

'Yes. She might. We have to carry on in the belief that Mirnatha is going to be handed over safe and well in return for the money.

Edeard wasn't much encouraged by his tone. They found Homelt waiting for them in the central corridor. He was in his fifties, thickset but still fit. The kidnapping had left him angry and distressed; it was taking up a lot of self control just to clamp down on his emotions. He'd spent twenty years in the constables, he told them, serving out of Bellis station. 'I was a good constable, he insisted. 'Not like some of them, who were just in it for the pay off. I did my duty and earned this post.

'So how did they get her? Edeard asked.

For an instant it looked like Homelt might strike out. He stood quite still and took a long breath. 'I don't know. And that's the Lady's honest truth. It was the middle of the night. All our gates are locked and guarded. There are more guards on random patrol inside. There's always someone on the stairs. I just don't understand.

'What about new guards?

'Yesterday, I thought I could trust every one of them. Today

I'm not sure of anything any more. We don't take in just anyone, they have to be known and sponsored; and like you we've got a pretty good idea who's in with the gangs.

'All right, so tell us what happened.

'The kid's nursery maid raised the alarm really early on. The first thing we did was double the gate guards, then we searched the whole mansion, every room I promise you. Not just farsight, we physically inspected everywhere. Then that bloody ge-eagle flapped down on to the tenth-floor hortus. The Master… I've never seen him so broken. She was a lovely little thing, she really was. Nothing like you'd expect a family child, none of the airs half of them have.

'Can I see the room please?

'What do you think? Dinlay asked as Homelt led them along the corridors. Dispirited staff hung their heads as the squad walked past. Edeard couldn't detect the faintest flash of guilt, they all shared the same numb horror. The three nursery maids were in their parlour next to the family rooms, all weeping openly. Even the ge-monkeys were subdued, caught up in the emotions saturating the mansion.

'The same as you, Edeard said. 'Somebody with a concealment ability. There's no other way.

'The gangs have that? Kanseen asked in alarm.

'Not the street soldiers we normally deal with, but I found out the hard way that Ivarl has a considerable psychic power.

Mirnatha's nursery room was the same size as the whole of Edeard's maisonette. The walls were draped in pink tapestries depicting colourful fairies and nikasprites and birds. Dressers and chairs were lined in streamers of fluffy pink feathers. There were two big dolls houses whose elaborately dressed inhabitants were strewn everywhere. A wooden rocking horse stood in one corner. The wardrobes were full of sweet little frocks.

Edeard found it painful just standing on the pink carpet looking round. He sniffed the air. 'Do you smell that? Something tangy? Walking round, the smell was strongest by the bed with its twee lace canopy.

'Chloroform, Homelt said. 'That's how they kept her quiet.

'What's chloroform? Edeard asked. The squad was regarding him with an expression he was staring to tire of.

'It's a chemical, Dinlay said. 'If it's inhaled it puts you to sleep. Nearly every kidnapper uses it. You soak it into a cloth and hold it over your victim's face.

'Chemicals? Edeard said. 'They used chemicals on a six year old girl.

'Yes, Homelt was giving him a strange look.

Edeard took a final look round the nursery and pushed the glass doors open. The section of the hortus directly outside was mainly laid with grass, with some ornate yew trees in urns standing along the silver-grey balustrade. He stood with his hands pressing down on the rail and looked down. Each of the terraces in the ziggurat was laid out below him, forming a series of horticultural steps down to the ground. Now spring had truly arrived, the plants formed a blaze of colour as their flowers opened to greet the warm days. Mirnatha's hortus faced east. Away to his left, the Great Major Canal stretched out in a perfectly straight line to the Lyot sea in the distance. People were just starting to appear along its side, claiming their position in readiness for the festival. He let his farsight expand along it, past Forest Pool and Mid Pool down to First Pool which formed the base of Myco. There was the House of Blue Petals, its interior impressively restored after the fire.

Ivarl stood in front of his office's oval window, stretching his farsight towards Edeard. Just for a second, Edeard was back in his room at the Ashwell Eggshaper Guild, searching the towers of the village gate for any sign of the guards, with the bandit chief watching him.

'I wouldn't have believed even you would stoop to this, Edeard informed his adversary coldly. 'She's six years old, for the Lady's sake. Six!

'I'm sorry about the girl, Ivarl replied. 'But it wasn't me.

'You're a bad liar.

'You and your activities have started to dismay some very important people in this city. And that stunt you pulled vanishing in the fire, that was impressive, even to me. They're starting to work out what you are and what you're capable of. I have a feeling myself that even you don't know your full potential yet. Not that it matters, because that potential has already made them fearful. You won't be allowed to reach it, they'll make sure of that. That's what today is about, not the girl. She's just a means to an end, but you know that already don't you?

'Where is she?

'I don't know. Nor do I know who does. If you want her you'll have to deliver the ransom.

'Is she still alive?

'I would imagine so. They need to entice you out of the city by yourself, away from any possible help. If she's dead, they lose their advantage and their ability to manipulate you. Just an observation; from someone who has a lot more experience than you in such matters.

'Who? Who has done this?

'Oh, please, Waterwalker.

'I hold you responsible.

'Really? Is the truth too great a burden for you? This is your war, and you should have considered the consequences before you began it. It's far too late now to act outraged when it goes against you. And you can't back out now. You're the only one who can save her.

'Will you negotiate for me? I'll go to them in Owestorn if they let her go.

'You really are that stupidly noble, aren't you. Dear Lady: youth and its virtue. This city will be doomed if you ever sit in the Mayor's chair at Council.

'Will you talk to them?

'They don't want a martyr, Waterwalker. Your death alone is not enough. It is how you die that is important.

'She's only six years old,

'There is nobody left for me to talk to; my oldest and dearest friends no longer hear me. You should have chosen your opponent with more care. As you are to the constables and the shopkeepers and merchants, so I am to my people. And I'm losing the battle. It's not just money you've cost me, it's my authority; and out of the two that is going to prove deadly.

'If she dies, I swear you will too.

'You don't really think either of us will see tomorrow's dawn, do you? Ivarl shook his head and raised a hand in farewell before going back into his study.

Edeard snarled in frustration, and slammed his hand down on the rail.

'You're the Waterwalker, aren't you?

'Huh? He turned round to see Kristabel standing underneath a pergola entwined with a thick emerald vine. First impression, which he always felt dishonoured by, was big wild hair and stick insect legs. Equally shaming was the accompanying thought. She's nothing like as pretty as Macsen made out.

Kristabel was tall with a long thin face that with her current mood made her appear incredibly melancholic. A slender body was wrapped in a loose white cotton nightdress. Like her father, she'd been crying. Her hair, which was actually gold-brown like her sister's, was threaded with lighter streaks. She'd been rubbing it or raking her hands through it, twining it into stringy strands which stuck out badly.

Edeard remembered his manners and bowed. 'Yes, Mistress, that's me.

'Mistress! She smiled, which turned into a grimace as she fought back tears. 'I'm mistress of nothing. Our family is a giant curse, a joke. How could the Lady allow this to happen?

'Please don't give up hope. I will do everything I can to ensure your sister's return.

'Everything you can. And what's that? She winced. 'I'm sorry. She's my sister. I love her so much. Why didn't they take me? Why?

'I don't know. Edeard desperately wanted to put his arms round her, to offer some comfort. She was younger than him by a year or so, he decided. And her pain, swirling out of an unshielded mind, was humbling.

'If you talk to them, she said. 'The beasts who did this, offer them me instead. I want to take her place. Please. They can do whatever they like to me, I don't care. I just want my Mirnatha home. Tell them that. Make them understand. I'm more valuable anyway, I'm the first daughter. I will be Mistress of this district.

'Your task, Mistress Kristabel, is to stay here and be strong for your father. He let conviction fill his voice. 'I will bring your sister back to you.

'Words, that's all. Promises, I have heard the like a thousand times from the lips of Masters. They are worth nothing.

'Let me try. I am not a Master. Do not give up hope yet. Please.

She wrung her hands together in anguish. 'Do you really think there is hope?

'Always, he told her gravely.

'Are you going to deliver the ransom?

'If that is what's needed, then yes.

'I overheard our family guards. They say it's a trap.

'It is.

'You don't even know Mirnatha.

'I don't have to.

'You really are a good man, aren't you? Is that why the gangs hate you so much?

'I expect so.

She straightened up, smoothing her nightdress, then gave him a questing glance. 'Did you really turn down Ranalee?

He bowed again. 'Yes, Mistress.

'Don't call me that. She smiled bravely, then darted forward.

Edeard felt her lips upon his cheek. He was too surprised to pull back.

'The Lady bless you, Waterwalker. She turned and scurried away down the hortus.

He walked back into Mirnatha's nursery with his thoughts in complete turmoil.

'What's the matter with you? Dinlay asked.

'Why are they doing this? Edeard asked, gazing round the room. He'd never actually seen so much pink in one place before.

'To screw you over, Boyd said.

'It was a rhetorical question. They want me out in Owestorn because they think if I'm all by myself they can kill me, right?

'It's what I'd do, Macsen said, ignoring the exasperated glare Kanseen gave him. 'They'll have a small army out there. Even if we're only ten minutes away, it'll all be over by the time we can reach you. They'll probably pick us off as well for good measure.

'But that turns us into martyrs like he said. That gives our cause strength. Possibly even enough strength to carry tomorrow's vote.

'Who said? Dinlay queried.

'That's not so good then, Macsen admitted. 'Mirnatha won't be coming back either.

'That way you get the blame, Boyd said. 'With no surviving witnesses they'll arrange it to seem like you tried something reckless. The city will believe you're responsible for her death; after all you had the ransom money. No criminal in their right mind would jeopardise that much coinage, especially after such a well executed kidnap.

'And the exclusion warrants end along with us, Edeard concluded. 'Clever.

'So what do we do? Kanseen asked.

Edeard turned to the small wooden bed, exquisitely crafted to resemble a swan, picturing a small sleeping child curled up daintily under the mauve sheets. 'Find her.

'Yeah, Macsen said. 'That would be good. Word of the kidnap is already spreading through the city. People are getting upset, you can sense that. Everyone is going to be looking for her; it's a double sacrilege on this day. The gangs will have no sympathy on this. She'll be hidden deep, that's if she's even still alive.

'She's alive, Edeard said, taking a slow step towards the bed. 'They need her until midnight. That's how they control me.

'Snatch Ivarl, Dinlay said excitedly. 'Fight fire with fire, they'll never expect that. They'll have to exchange her for him.

Macsen gave Dinlay an astonished look. 'Well I certainly never expected to hear that from your lips. I'm impressed; it has the advantage of complete surprise. Edeard?

'No. Anyway, Ivarl had no part in this.

'How do you know that? Boyd asked.

'He just told me. Edeard stroked the bed's canopy, still trying to imagine Mirnatha.

'He told you— the rest of the squad were giving each other amazed glances.

'Yes. Do me a favour, guard the doors, stop anyone from coming in here. I need to be alone for a while.

'Okay, Macsen said reasonably. 'Do you want to tell us why?

'I want to remember, Edeard said.

They were good. They didn't question him further. They had strong doubts, he could tell that, but they went out and stood beside the doors, and started talking among themselves.

Edeard pressed himself to the wall behind the bed, and slipped his farsight into the unyielding substance of which the mansion was fabricated. 'I need to know, he told it. 'I need to see what you remember.

Down at the very threshold of perception, attuned with the city's slumbering thoughts, images shimmered like the recollections of a dream. People moved inside the nursery. Himself and the squad. He followed the memory back. Julan was in the room, shouting in fury. Kristabel, crying as you would at a funeral. Further back, the frantic guards and nurses. Beyond that, the nurse coming in to find no sign of Mirnatha. And then there she was in the dead of night, a delightful little girl clutching her Huffy bear as she slept, untroubled by dreams.

Edeard slowed his quest through the stream of memory, and moved forward again. It was long after midnight when the figure materialized in the near-lightless nursery. A man wrapped in a dark coat, dissolving his concealment to stand above the bed. Edeard didn't know him, but the features were vaguely familiar; if pressed he would say the kidnapper was related to Tannarl — one of Ranalee's army of cousins, perhaps. And his cloak was expensive, as were the boots. This was no ordinary gang lieutenant. The man took a pad of cloth from his pocket, and splashed some liquid on it from a small brown bottle. The pad was pressed hard over Mirnatha's face. She struggled briefly. Edeard clenched his fists, wanting to pound the kidnapper, to make him suffer before he died.

A deeply unconscious Mirnatha was lifted from her bed. The fluffy bear was dropped to the floor. And the man's concealment enveloped both of them. A second later, the door opened and shut as if by its own accord.

'Oh Lady, Edeard exclaimed in dismay. No matter how many times he immersed himself in the memory, the mansion couldn't see the kidnapper inside his concealment. He held the moment the kidnapper lifted the child from her bed, seeing it as plain as if he were standing right beside them.

There must be some other way the mansion can remember him. Though Edeard didn't have much confidence. He and the squad had experimented for weeks to see if concealment had a weakness, a way they could sense through it. They hadn't found one yet. Akeem's final gift appeared to be without a single flaw.

Now, studying the kidnapper, Edeard desperately tried to think what might betray the man's position. The beagle had caught his scent in the House of Blue Petals, but the city didn't smell. The air that moved as he walked back down the stairs! There was no memory of anything so slight.

He looked at Mirnatha's face as she was lifted up, so pale, her hair dangling limply. The kidnapper's face drawn slightly as he struggled to accept the child's weight.

'Weight! Edeard shouted happily. And he was right. The floor remembered the weight; each and every footfall. Now, shifting through the vast pool of memories stored within the substance of the mansion he concentrated on the sensation of weight alone. In his mind he could visualize the corridor outside the nursery, its floor a simple white strip, blue dints along the edge where expensive antique tables and chairs rested. A leaden maroon imprint appeared outside Mirnatha's nursery door, another followed, the imprints pattered their way along the corridor and into the main stairwell. The kidnapper spiralled his way down—

* * * * *

The squad gave Edeard a curious look as he came out of the nursery. It wasn't right that he should be smiling.

'What in Honious's name have you been doing in there? Dinlay asked. 'We've had our hands full keeping the family out. And Julan says the ransom is ready. The flag is flying over the Orchard Palace. A militia escort is saddling up to escort you clear of the city. You're going to need a couple of ge-horses to carry so much gold.

Edeard glanced up at the corridor's crystal roof to see the sun was almost directly overhead. Outside, the usual longtalk babble was subdued; Makkathran's citizens were incensed by the kidnapping, their fear and hatred combined to a sullen resentment. This was not the happy Festival of Guidance they wanted.

He had no idea it had taken so long to filter through the mansion's memories. It didn't matter, nor did the ransom. 'I know where she is, he announced.

'Where? Dinlay demanded.

'No, how? Macsen asked shrewdly.

Edeard gave him a level stare. 'The city remembered.

'The city remembered?

'Yes.

Macsen gave Kanseen and Boyd a very dubious look. 'Uh huh.

'She's underneath a fish smoking business on Layne Street in Fiacre. The family use two levels of cellars under the building to smoke their fish, but there's another level beneath that. Four chambers. They've taken it over.

'They?

'Ten of them, maybe more. Even I can't farsight that accurately from here.

Boyd clapped his hands delightedly. 'Brilliant. We've got her.

'Not quite. You don't need over ten people to stop one six-year-old from escaping an underground prison. And they know we can work a concealment.

'They'll kill her, Dinlay said forlornly. 'There's too many to take them by surprise.

'I think you're right, Edeard said.

'So what do we do? Kanseen asked.

Edeard smiled. 'Take them by surprise. He longtalked Ronark back at the station, and asked for some weapons to be brought over.

'You're sure she's still alive? Macsen asked.

Edeard smiled. 'Yeah. She's alive.

'Finally, some good news. The city isn't happy, Edeard. Today was supposed to be a festival. Everyone knows now, and there's a lot of agitators out there blaming you!

'Charming.

'The Pythia is going to begin the service of Guidance with a plea to release Mirnatha, Dinlay said. 'That's at midday, in ton minutes. Do you want to tell her before she begins?

'Lady, no. We haven't got Mirnatha yet.

Kanseen shook her head as she broke off trying to farsight. 'Lady, I can barely sense the smoking business from in here. I can't tell what's underneath.

'They're there, Edeard assured them.

'So what's the plan? Dinlay asked. 'We could surround the building. Once everyone knows Mirnatha is in there, the gangs won't be able to do anything. They'll have to let her go.

'Come on, Edeard said. He led them down the corridor, retracing the kidnapper's footsteps. 'They're not going to let her go just because people don't like it. These men were chosen because they'll fight to the very end. They're the ones we've already broken, people like Eddis who have nothing to lose. This is not about the girl, it never was. It's about tomorrow's vote and how to get the outcome they need.

Mistress Florrel stepped out of the lounge doorway just as they reached the main stairwell

'Where do you think you're going? she snapped at Edeard. 'Running away, I suppose. Well, good riddance to you.

'We're going to get her back, actually, Dinlay said hotly.

Edeard winced.

'You're doing what? she was trembling with outrage.

Edeard cleared his throat, and looked calmly at his most persistent foe. 'I might know where she is. I'm going to do my duty and bring her home. That's what we all want, isn't it?

'You'll do no such thing. If you know where she is you'll inform the Mayor immediately. A regiment of the militia will bring back my poor dear Mirnatha. They know exactly how to deal with anyone who dares to attack one of my descendants.

'With respect Mistress Florrel, they don't. I will bring her back unharmed. You have my word. Edeard turned to the top of the curving stairs.

'Come back here, young man, Mistress Florrel said with quiet insistence.

Edeard couldn't believe it. Thanks to Dybal's recognition gift, his mind perceived her longtalk trying to insinuate itself into his consciousness, a soothing compulsion for him to come to her just as she had suggested. She was trying to dominate him.

He raised an eyebrow disdainfully as his mental shield closed. 'Naughty, he said, and wagged a forefinger at her.

She blanched, her hand pressing theatrically against her throat.

A smiling Edeard led the way down the stairs.

'Bet we never make it out of the mansion, Macsen said cheerfully as they reached tin- ninth floor.

'Outside? Boyd said. 'That's ambitious. We'll never make it to the bottom of the stairs.

'Do you know who took the girl? Kanseen asked.

'No. Edeard gifted them the vision of the kidnapper. 'Do any of you?

'He's a Gilmorn, Macsen said. 'Or sired by a Gilmorn at any rate. Look at that nose.

'Maybe we should tell Julan we've found his daughter, Dinlay said, with a hint of anxiety. 'I mean, surely he deserves to know? If we're going to put her at risk he must have the final say.

'I'm not telling him what I can do, Edeard said flatly. 'I don't know where his allegiance is.

'Well, he's hardly going to be on their side, Boyd said.

'Not today, no. But let's face it we don't even know who they really are, do we?

The squad had reached the third floor when Grand Master Finitan longtalked Edeard. His telepathic voice was directed so skilfully it was as though the Master was standing beside him on the stairs whispering into his ear. 'Edeard, whatever have you done to my least favourite aunt?

'What did she say I'd done?

'Well arrogance and incompetence were the mildest complaints. I'm supposed to be longtalking you out of rescuing Mirnatha. Apparently she thinks I have «influence» over you.

'Are you going to?

'Certainly not. Do you know where the poor girl is?

'I think so.

'Edeard, I hate to be unpleasantly harsh on poor little Mirnatha, but you do understand what's at stake, don't you?

'Tomorrow's vote.

'There is another tactic I could use in Council. I've hesitated before now because it looked like we could win a straight challenge.

'What tactic?

'A plebiscite. There will be enough Masters to support that motion. Many of them are troubled. They see the progress you've made in Jeavons and Silvarum, and there is enormous pressure from the general population to continue your campaign. But Mirnatha's death would give them the option to vote down the warrants. If we were left in uncertainty for the Council meeting tomorrow then they would jump at the chance to defer the decision and be able to place blame elsewhere.

Edeard paused on the stairs. 'You mean do nothing?

'It's a long way to Owestorn. You might be able to ensure news took a equally long time to come back.

'Sir, I cannot do that. More than anyone I want the gangs out of this city. But I cannot play politics with the life of a six-year-old innocent. I know where she is, and I know what has to be done to bring her back to her family. Right now that's all that matters.

'Of course. You'll have my support no matter what. May the Lady be with you this day.

'Thank you, sir.

They were on the last flight of stairs when Julan's voice echoed down from above. 'Stop! Stop, I forbid this. You must not do anything rash. I have the ransom. Waterwalker! Come back. The flag flies above Orchard Palace as they asked. His longtalk was added to the plea. 'You promised me. You said you would bring her back.

Edeard looked up to see the broken Master leaning over the rail far above. 'I will bring her back to you, sir. Trust me.

'No no. There is to be no fighting. Pay the ransom. That is the only way she will come back unharmed.

'I give you my word I will not endanger her. If it takes the ransom to release her, I will carry it to them for you.

'Wait. You know where she is, don't you?

'I'm not sure.

'My aunt says you do. Wait, I will come with you.

'Oh Lady, Edeard groaned.

'We can be there before he even gets down here, Boyd urged.

'No we can't, Macsen said through gritted teeth.

Edeard looked down, Homelt and a number of guards were standing at the foot of the stairs. 'Does nobody want this girl to live? he growled.

'We do, Edeard, Kanseen assured him.

'Right then. He took the last flight of stairs at a run.

'I have my orders, Homelt said as the squad confronted him. His hand rested on his pistol holster.

'What are they? Edeard asked reasonably.

'Not to let you leave the mansion. It's not just Master Julan. I could maybe ignore that on this day. But Lorin backed him up, and he does have his wits about him. I'll say naught about Mistress Florrel. The guard captain glanced up, several people were on the eighth flight of stairs, making a commotion as they wound their way inexorably down.

'Fair enough, Edeard said. 'Don't let us out.

Homelt flashed him a hugely relieved look. 'You'll wait for the Master?

'Not quite. Edeard leaned forwards. 'She is alive. I know where she is.

'I will come with you, Waterwalker, Homelt said softly.

'No. This is not the help she needs. Already the news is spreading. We have to be quick. You know they'll kill her, and you know why.

Homelt's anguish was visible for all to see. 'What do you want me to do?

'Take us down to your deepest cellar. The one on the north western corner of the mansion. And we'll need your pistols, too. Hurry man, or it'll be too late.

Homelt glanced up the stairwell. Julan was on the seventh flight of stairs. 'Quickly then.

The cellar door was ancient wood, long since blackened so that no grain showed. Nails holding the hinges against the city's original open arch were in need of re-inserting; the city's sub stance had rejected over half of their length. That looseness made the heavy door swing about unsteadily as Homelt drew the bolls back and opened it. Barrels and crates cluttered the small room, caked in decades of dust and fil-rat droppings.

'I don't understand, the guard captain said, peering into the gloomy space. 'What's in here?

'Us, Edeard told him. 'Lock us in here. That way you will have obeyed your orders to the letter.

'What about Mirnatha?

'Trust me.

For a moment Edeard thought he might refuse and march them all upstairs for Julan and Lorin to sort out. But after a moment of hesitation while his mind showed a huge amount of uncertainty, Homelt ushered them all into the cellar, gave them a pistol each, and shut the door.

'Far be it for my humble self to criticise, Macsen said as the bolts were slammed back into place with some force. 'But I don't understand either.

'If we are to rescue Mirnatha alive, it means we won't be able to take prisoners, Edeard told them gravely. He brandished a pistol, examining its mechanism with his farsight. 'Are you still with me?

'We're with you, Kanseen said. 'But will you please tell us what in all of Honious is going on. I thought we'd got past this whole trust thing.

Edeard grinned broadly. 'This'll test your trust as nothing else. Step where I do, one at a time. You will feel like you're falling, but I promise you're not. If you can't do this, I'll think no less of you. He asked a circle of floor to let him though. It changed. Edeard stepped on it, and fell through the blackness into the Great Major Canal tunnel. Once he'd landed on the ledge above the water he moved to one side and waited.

It was Boyd who came through first, yelling in shock the whole way until his feet touched the ledge. 'Fuck the Lady! he bellowed in fright-driven excitement.

Still grinning, Edeard grabbed his friend's shoulder and dragged him aside as Kanseen came through; little whimpering sounds burping out of her throat as her arms windmilled furiously. She looked round in astonishment. 'This is incredible. It's… I had no idea this existed.

Edeard caught her arm and just managed to pull her out of the way of Dinlay's feet. Dinlay's eyes were screwed up shut behind his glasses.

'Waaaahoooo, Macsen yelled wildly as he dropped through the roof of the tunnel.

Edeard faced his friends, still unable to wipe the grin off his face. He'd rarely sensed their minds so unguarded; but surprise had left them too jittery to veil their emotions as usual. 'So, he drawled. 'You must have been keeping these tunnels from me, what with you city natives knowing everything there is to know about your own home.

'You bastard, Macsen said happily. 'What is this?

'This is the tunnel under the Great Major Canal, every canal has one.

'But how…? Dinlay was blinking up at the roof of the tunnel, his farsight probing the substance to try and find where they'd come through.

'I'm the Waterwalker, Edeard told them. 'Remember?

'Seriously, Kanseen asked with a noticeable edge in her voice. 'How did we get here?

'I'm not sure, exactly. I just ask the city, and it lets me through.

'You. Just. Ask. The. City.

'Yep, he said, faintly apologetic.

'After today, you have a lot more explaining to do.

Edeard sobered up. 'Then let's get today over with.

Their mood followed his down to a more sombre level. He started to walk along the tunnel towards Forest Pool. 'The fish smoking business is only one street back from Pink Canal.

'So you do have a plan then? Macsen said.

'Yes. The way we come down reverses. The five of us will slide up into the cellars close to where Mirnatha is being held.

'You said there's ten of them?

'At least. I'm worried the kidnapper is there as well. He can conceal himself, so we'll never know for sure until we're there. The first thing they'll do at any sign of rescue is kill Mirnalha.

It won't matter how clever I've been finding her, or how good we are at sneaking up on them if she's dead at the end of it all.

'Why go up there at all? Kanseen asked. 'Just ask the city to let her fall down here.

'First off, she's shackled to the wall. We'd have to break the chains, and even I can't do that from down here. Secondly, there's no tunnel directly underneath her cellar, not even a drain. We're going to have to come up in the one next to hers.

'Crap, Boyd muttered.

'We go up concealed, Edeard said. 'If I can get into the cellar where they're keeping her, my third hand should be able to protect her from bullets. It's going to be up to you to cover my back.

They splashed across the shallow basin that emulated Forest Pool high above. Edeard could just farsight people gathering along the sides of the canals. Children with their flower boats, eager to launch them. Adults still seething over Mirnatha.

'How many in her cellar? Kanseen asked.

'Two that I can sense. He still wasn't sure about the kidnapper. The cellar had many old crates and lengths of wood as well as a couple of small benches. If anyone with a concealment was sitting on them he couldn't tell. Certainly the cellar floor had no current memory of anyone else standing on it. It would take a long time to filter through the day's memories.

'How are you going to get to her, then?

'Brute force. As soon as we're all up there, I make a run for the door. I can smash through it and get in front of her, where I can protect her. Then I just hang on while you take the others out.

'And if it goes wrong?

'Then we're all dead, and Makkathran has to find someone else to campaign against the gangs.

Kanseen gave him a disapproving grin. 'You're going to make a terrible Chief Constable. Grand Councillors are supposed to be smooth and subtle.

'You can teach me. You'll have a hundred years, after all.

'No, she said. 'You move quicker than that.

Edeard led them along Pink Canal tunnel, then off into the drain fissure until they were standing underneath the cellar closest to where Mirnatha was being held captive.

'I can sense her, Kanseen said excitedly. 'The poor thing's terrified.

'Everyone ready? Edeard asked.

When they assured him they were, he said: 'I think I can do this so we all go up together. Remember, keep yourself concealed until they know I'm there, then take them out. And for the Lady's sake don't call out. You're not actually falling, it only feels like it.

'Wait, Boyd said. 'It feels like we're falling when we're going up,

'Yes. And no; I don't know why.

Macsen clicked the safety catch off his pistol. 'Let's just go. See you all up there.

'All right, Edeard said. He concealed himself, and waited until the others had vanished from his sight, then told the city to take them up.

The cellar he slid up into was barely high enough for him to stand upright. It was a simple oblong box of a room, with dark walls inset with narrow alcoves, and a shallow vaulted ceiling of lierne ribs. Ancient fishing nets and tishcrab cages were piled up along one wall. One doorway opened on to a spiral stair up to the smoking caverns above. The kidnappers were sitting at two wooden tables in front of it, slowly consuming a quantity of food. There was no beer or wine, just water, Edeard saw. Whoever had organized this had chosen well. These men had a ruthless discipline; they'd use the pistols resting on the table without a qualm. Just standing among them made him worry for the squad.

One of them started to look round the room, frowning. 'Did you hear something?

Edeard made for the half-open door. He wiggled his way round through the gap, not daring to breathe. Behind him, the kidnappers were picking their pistols off the table. Powerful longtalk voices were directing questions at the guards upstairs.

Edeard looked along the low corridor. The smell of fish and oak-smoke was heavy in the air. Directly opposite him was a door to the cellar where Mirnatha was being held. It was made from tyewood planks three inches thick, with iron hinges that had recently been re-set in the walls. There were heavy bolts on either side, and both sets were drawn shut. He braced himself against the wall, summoned up the full strength of his third hand, then leapt forwards.

His concealment dropped as he was halfway across the corridor. The door burst apart as he smashed it with his third hand, putting up no more resistance than if it had been made of glass.

A shout in the cellar behind: 'Hey! as their farsight caught him. Then he was through the smashed door, and folding his third hand protectively round the dazed little girl.

Three pistol shots boomed out behind him, appallingly loud in the confines of the underground chambers. His farsight caught Kanseen flicker into view behind one of the kidnappers sitting at the table. He was rising to his feet. Kanseen's pistol was aimed at the back of his skull. She pulled the trigger, and his face exploded outwards in a spray of gore. Kanseen vanished again. Dinlay was firing into the side of another kidnapper; his mind ablaze with rage and fear. He vanished. Macsen appeared on the other side of the cellar.

Edeard's pistol was swinging round to line up on one of the two men guarding Mirnatha as he charged across the cellar. It was hardly a perfect aim, but he fired anyway, getting off four shots. More pistol shots echoed round him. Shouts and longtalk howls behind him created a bedlam of white-noise. The guard he'd shot at grunted in shock, and stared down at his tunic to see a huge stain of blood spreading across his chest. Two bullets punched Edeard, knocking him to one side. One bullet hit his third hand directly above Mirnatha's head. Then he was squashed up against her, closing his arms round her shaking shoulders as she screamed a soprano wail that never ended. More pistol shots. One slammed into his neck — fired by the uninjured guard. Edeard reached out with his third hand, his strength shoving through the man's own shield. He ripped at the man's brain. The skull cracked, blood pulsed out of his ears as he crumpled to the ground.

Another bullet smacked into Edeard. He shifted his farsight focus to see the injured guard slumped against a wall; holding his pistol up, arm wavering about. He was drawing breath in feeble gulps as his blood spilled onto the floor. Edeard's third hand wrenched the gun from his numb fingers. Rotated it a hundred and eighty degrees. Pulled the trigger.

Three more shots from outside, and the shouting cut off.

'Edeard? Macsen shouted.

'All right! In here.

'Are you okay?

'Wait, he ordered, tightening his physical hold around the girl, keeping his shield as hard as rock. Mirnatha had fainted. He instinctively knew something was wrong. After the first guard had gone down, the second one had fired. Two shots had struck him, and a third was aimed at Mirnatha. They couldn't possibly have come from just one pistol.

The squad were tumbling out of the cellar opposite.

'Wait, he called again. 'Don't come in.

'What's happening? Boyd demanded.

Edeard knew he should have been delighted that all his friends were alive. Instead he scanned round and round the room, looking for the slightest tell tale sign. The cellar floor revealed nothing. There were no human feet standing on it. Edeard used his third hand to shatter the bench the guards had been using. Nothing. He crunched the second bench and all the chairs. 'Lady!

He lifted up a length of splintered wood, and sent it scything round the room. Kanseen and Dinlay were crouched hallway down the corridor, pistols held ready, their faces registering bewilderment as their farsight followed his actions. Edeard swung the wood through three orbits of the cellar without connecting to anything. He scraped it along the wall at waist-height, jabbing it viciously into every alcove as he performed a complete circuit. Again, nothing.

'You're good, he acknowledged, and reached out with his farsight to feel what the cellar floor and walls were feeling, hunting for that elusive pressure of human feet. His perception swept back and forth. Then, finally, the last kidnapper was revealed.

'Very clever, Edeard said, and meant it. He turned round, still keeping Mirnatha centred within his protective telekinesis. He aimed his pistol up at the ceiling to one side of the door, and fired the remaining two shots in quick succession.

The kidnapper's concealment fizzled out as the bullets struck, revealing him clinging to the small lierne ribs like some human spider. He fell inertly to the floor, landing with a dull crack. It was the same man who'd snatched Mirnatha from her room.

Edeard walked over to him and stared down. 'She is six years old, and you used her, he exclaimed in disgust.

The man's mouth opened. Blood spilled out. He somehow managed a small sneer. 'Rot in Honious, a weak longtalk sputtered. Then his thoughts were dimming. Edeard kept his farsight on those final flutters of emotion, searching for the slightest hint of regret. Some explanation of why a person could be so cold.

More blood bubbled out of the kidnapper's mouth as he exhaled for the last time. Yet Edeard could still sense his thoughts, enfeebled wisps of their original strength and pattern. The body had died, but they persisted. Then they moved.

Edeard gulped in shock, and took a step back as the kidnapper's soul diffused gracefully out of his body. The spectral entity hovered over the corpse for a few moments, then ascended into the ceiling and was lost to Edeard's farsight.

'Did you sense that? he asked the squad in astonishment.

'Edeard? Kanseen asked. 'Is it safe?

'Uh, yeah. That was his soul, wasn't it?

'His soul? She edged cautiously across the remnants of the door. Any curiosity was instantly forgotten as she saw Mirnatha.

'Whose soul? Macsen asked brashly as he followed Kanseen in.

Edeard couldn't take his eyes off the ceiling where the soul had vanished. 'The kidnapper's.

'Did you get shot? Macsen asked in concern.

'No.

A moan from Mirnatha succeeded in drawing Edeard's attention back down. 'Don't let her see this, he blurted. There was blood and gore all over the cellar. And the bodies. A scene that was even worse in the cellar at the bottom of the stairs. 'Are all of you okay?

'Oh, now you ask, Boyd joshed.

'I think I'm going to be sick, Dinlay said. His constable tunic was covered in blood.

Edeard's third hand snapped the iron shackles round Mirnatha's wrists. Kanseen blinked at the nonchalant show of strength. 'You carry her, she said, stroking the girl's brow, gentle with concern. Her hand and sleeve was speckled with arterial blood.

'But—

'This is your victory, Kanseen insisted.

Edeard nodded. 'Thank you. All of you.

Boyd's solemn face broke into a wild smile. 'By the Lady: we got her! We bloody did it.

They were all laughing in shaky relief as Edeard scooped up the small child, and carried her out of the cellar. People won crowding round the top of the stairs as he made his way out of the smoking chambers. Workers and family members with worried faces and probing farsight. That worry changed to consternation as the Waterwalker himself emerged into their midst. They backed off fast.

'No good trying to hide, Boyd said as they made their way out through the shop at the front of the building. 'The local constables will be calling. He paused. 'That's if the Culverit family guards don't pay you a visit first.

Edeard stepped out into the midday sun, blinking at how bright it was. It seemed as if he hadn't been outside in the light for a week, yet it was less than an hour since Homelt had taken them to the mansion's cellar. He got his bearings swiftly enough, and started walking down Layne Street.

Mirnatha stirred as they turned into Arnold Avenue, heading for Pink Canal. She started suddenly, looking round frantically.

'It's all right, Edeard told her. 'We're taking you home to your family. Your father and sister are worried about you.

She gave him a wide-eyed stare. 'You're the Waterwalker.

'Yes. I am.

'They took— she cried. 'I was in a dark room. I couldn't farsee anything. They were horrible—I–I—

'It's over. Look. It's a bright sunny day. We should be back at your home in time for you to see the flower boats.

She clung to him. 'What happened to the bad men?

'You won't see them again, I promise.

There were a lot of people lined up along the side of the canal, standing at least six deep as they waited for the end of the ceremony in the Lady's grand church. It was mostly excited children at the front, clutching their flower boats; with parents standing behind, pleading and warning not to put their craft into the water until the Pythia was finished. Edeard actually smiled as he finally saw the multitude of flower boats being held ready. They were spectacularly beautiful; from endearing little paper craft with a couple of daisies clutched by toddlers, to elaborate vessels with a rainbow of blooms crafted by proud older children. Their happy faces were wonderfully uplifting.

He started to make his way through the crowd. Heads swivelled in his direction. Surprise turned to shock when they saw the squad; uniforms covered in blood, tired yet cheerful, with the Waterwalker himself carrying the kidnapped girl whose smiled up at him with shy adulation. Silence fell. The crowd parted, giving him a clear path to the mooring platform at the | end of the avenue.

Someone started clapping. Whispers of amazement turned to exultant longtalk and shouts of approval. More people were joining the applause.

'It's the Waterwalker.

'They've rescued the girl!

'Mirnatha is alive.

'Dear Lady, look at the blood.

'It's his whole squad.

'They did it, they saved her.

Three gondolas were secured to the platform, each of them garlanded with hundreds of snow-white flowers. Edeard stepped on to the first boat as the gondolier took his hat off and held it to his chest, staring at Mirnatha. 'Get us to her mansion, Edeard told him.

'But the festival…

'The Pythia's ceremony isn't over yet. And I think Mirnatha deserves to go home, don't you?

'Yes, sir. Of course. He picked up his punt.

By now everyone was packed right up to the edge of the canal. The applause and cheering put Edeard right back to that day in Birmingham Pool. 'Let's see how quick you are, he told tin-gondolier said as they pushed off.

It wasn't far. Down to Forest Pool then they went up the Grand Major Canal to the Culverit mansion's private mooring platform at the edge of High Pool. Mirnatha sat up on the prow, looking from side to side in utter bliss as waves of applause and cheering followed her progress home.

'Do you think they'll even bother with the vote tomorrow? Macsen said quietly as he waved at the enthusiastic onlookers crammed along the canal. Flower boats were being held aloft and waved in heartfelt greeting for the little girl. The whole canal rippled with dramatic colours.

'Not a lot of point, Boyd replied.

'Can you boys just enjoy the moment, Kanseen said. 'I mean, come on, we're getting some adulation this time, too.

'I'm going to be sick, Dinlay said, dabbing at the congealing blood on his uniform.

'Don't you dare, she told him crossly.

Mirnatha gripped Edeard's arm. Her other hand pointed ahead to the mansion's mooring platform. 'I see Daddy, she squealed. 'And Krissy. They're both there. She started to wave frantically, longtalking for all she was worth.

'And Mistress Florrel isn't, Boyd muttered contentedly.

The gondolier steered them smoothly into the side of the platform. Julan snatched his daughter out of the craft, hugging her and weeping uncontrollably. Kristabel joined in. Mirnatha began to chatter at an incredible speed, telling them what had befallen her. One last final hurrah broke out among the crowds, running the whole length of Grand Major Canal.

Edeard and the squad stepped on to the platform. Homelt stood in front of him, and bowed his head. 'Thank you, he said. 'Though the Lady knows how you pulled off that stunt. There is no way out of that cellar.

Edeard gave him a knowing grin. Then Julan grabbed him roughly by both shoulders and pulled him close. 'I thank you, Waterwalker, I thank you from the very bottom of my heart! My baby, my baby is saved.

'I'm sorry we didn't take you with us, sir, Edeard said. 'But my squad is a good team, we work best by ourselves.

Julan couldn't stop crying. He clutched Mirnatha tighter. 'I understand. Thank you all. You were right. I was wrong. Please, I was crazed with worry

'Nobody was wrong, sir. Mirnatha is back home. That's all that matters.

'Yes yes. He lifted his daughter up again. She giggled and kissed him. 'Whatever you desire in this world, it is yours, and still it will never be enough to express my gratitude to you all. Say it, and I will see it is done.

Macsen put on a wholly reasonable expression and opened his mouth. Kanseen's third hand poked him in the ribs. He looked pained, but didn't say anything.

'We really are just doing our duty, sir, Edeard claimed.

'What nonsense. I will start my payment by welcoming you to our family's celebration feast tonight.

'That's very kind of you, sir, Boyd said hurriedly, before Edeard could say no. 'We'd be honoured.

'Thank you, Waterwalker, Mirnatha giggled. She leaned forward in her father's embrace and gave Edeard a messy kiss.

'Yes, Kristabel said, appearing directly in front of Edeard as her father made his way up the steps at the back of the platform. 'Thank you indeed.

He didn't quite know what to say, so settled for a modest shrug. She was still in her flimsy white cotton nightdress, though a grey-green woollen shawl was wrapped round her shoulders. Her hair wasn't quite so wild now. The squad edged closer.

'You kept your word, she said.

'Er yes. Actually, it was a pretty stupid thing to—

Her finger touched his lips. 'No. It was the greatest thing you could possibly do. No wonder the gangs and Masters are so frightened of you. I have faith in you, Waterwalker.

'Mistress. He made a real hash of a formal bow, producing something more like a nervous twitch. Kristabel all serene like this was quite impressive. Imposing, actually.

'Ah yes, Mistress, she said teasingly. 'Well, as future Mistress of Haxpen, I shall require the first dance with you at our family party tonight. And the last. And, I think, every one between.

'Oh. Edeard paled. He was a rotten dancer. 'My pleasure.

Kristabel's smile widened to include all the squad. 'Please today my house is yours. And every day to come. The view from the upper hortus is the best in the city from which to watch the flower boats on their way to the sea. And you must bathe and freshen up. I'll see that the staff find some clothes that fit, ready for the party.

Edeard watched her start up the wooden stairs to the fabulous ziggurat mansion towering above them. The hem of her nightdress flapped around her knees. I must not look at her legs. I must not.

Kanseen's head slipped sinuously over his left shoulder. 'You do know, don't you, she said quietly, 'that you can't actually sleep with every girl in this city?

Edeard looked at Kristabel's legs. Slim, yes; but rather shapely, too. 'I know, he said wistfully.

Kanseen kissed his ear playfully. 'But you could do a lot worse than Kristabel.

THREE

The night was as black as only Hanko's thick curtains of stormcloud could make it. Wind howled around the ice boulders, creating strange antagonistic harmonics. While overhead occasional forks of lightning turned the tragic landscape into a monochrome silhouette.

Right at the edge of the Asiatic glacier a flare of tangerine light burst into existence, creating an eerie aural blaze around the top of the titanic cliff. It vanished in an instant. The ice trembled in reaction. After a while, the spray of tangerine light gushed up again. Brighter this time. Larger ice fragments jumped and juddered at the vibrations hammering through the surface.

A pause filled by the eternal yowl of the blizzard.

The light appeared once more. This time splinters of ice erupted from the top of the cliff, swirling away into the mile high abyss. A hand wearing a thick grey gauntlet crept up and patted the surface, scrabbling for a firm purchase.

Aaron heaved himself up, and rolled on to the top of tin-glacier. After a moment he clambered to his feet. He swept tin-surrounding area with his biononic field scan function, seeking traces of the ground crawler. The trail it had taken was plain enough, retracing its original route through the boulder field.

He started to run after it.

He was very VERY angry.

* * * * *

The Clippsby cafe on Daryad Avenue served exactly the kind of breakfast Oscar loved. Industrial strength coffee, bacon baguettes, and almond croissants with a dip pot of agal syrup. Despite the three of them wearing the Ellezelin police uniform the owner served them readily enough. The only other customers were also Ellezelin troopers grabbing a late breakfast between alerts. This morning should have been so different. Everyone in the city had stayed up, accessing Justine's heroic dash for the Void. Unisphere and gaiafield alike were enraptured by the appearance of the Second Dreamer, rumour and speculation were currently the foremost indulgence of billions. Yet here in Colwyn the atmosphere of wonder had been ripped to pieces by the welcome team's raid. There had been a lot of people in the park outside the apartment block. They'd reacted predictably enough to such a brash act, taunting the paramilitary troops on the cordon. It was touch and go if a full riot would erupt. As a result, the city seemed even more paralysed than yesterday. Very few citizens were going in to work. They were either too fearful of getting caught up in disturbances; or they were heading out to join the crowd in Bodant and other hot spots where they might get lucky and give some hapless foreign trooper a good kicking. Either way, not much was open in the centre of town.

Oscar accepted another refill from the waitress, smiling in gratitude. The cafe owner might have cajoled her to serve him, but she certainly didn't have to smile back as she was pouring. 'So what now? he asked Tomansio as the woman stomped off and the privacy shield shimmered on around their table.

'Information is the key, as always, Tomansio replied, trying not to frown at the food piled up in front of Oscar. For himself he'd ordered a smoked gruslet and cream cheese sandwich to go with his green tea. 'We know without any doubt that the Second Dreamer was in that apartment block. Which means either the welcome team have him, and major Honilar will find that out for sure in the next six hours, or he escaped before we got there.

'We were there fast, Beckia said. 'I don't think I could have got out, not without a lot of fuss.

'This man is smart, Tomansio said. 'Using Danal's apartment was a superb misdirection.

'But how could he have got out? Oscar asked. 'They would have seen any capsule lifting from the apartments.

'Stealth? Beckia suggested. She wrinkled her nose in dissatisfaction. 'But if he's got a stealth capsule why would he actually commune with the gaiafield from Danal's apartment? That doesn't make any sense.

'The only practical escape route would be some kind of tunnel not on the city plans, Tomansio said. 'And the apartments are being refurbished by a whole load of different developers. That would give him plenty of scope for such an activity.

'That presupposes he knew he'd need an escape tunnel, Oscar said. 'How would he know Ethan was going to annex the whole planet and flood the city with paramilitaries?

'Connections in Living Dream, Beckia said with a baffled tone. She shook her head. 'That doesn't make any sense either. If you have those kind of connections, why go on the lam like this?

'You don't suppose this is Inigo, do you? Oscar suggested.

Tomansio pulled a breath through clenched teeth. 'I'd hate to rule it out, but this simply isn't Inigo's way of doing things. Hi' doesn't need to sneak around. For a start, his word alone is the only thing which could stop Ethan's insane Pilgrimage.

'Not so insane, Beckia muttered. 'And not so easily stopped. Not any more. The whole of the Greater Commonwealth just watched Justine's ship go through the barrier. The Second Dreamer can get the Pilgrimage inside. That's a phenomenal boost to Living Dream's credibility.

'It also secures Ethan's leadership, Tomansio said. 'Even if Inigo did turn up now, he might not have the authority to pull it off.

'Wouldn't be the first time a religion outgrows its messiah, Oscar said.

'No indeed. So… we're left with the same problem everyone else has: finding this extremely slippery Second Dreamer.

'I don't believe in secret tunnels, Oscar said. He drank some of his coffee, enjoying the bitter liquid burning its way down his throat. It had been a long time since he'd got some sleep. 'There's something about this which isn't right.

'Care to elaborate?

'I can't, unfortunately. I'm just not convinced that the Second Dreamer is some kind of supersmart covert operative. Living Dream had to out him in the first place, now he's communing with a Skylord, which is something Inigo never managed. That doesn't come over as someone who's thought out the consequences of their actions.

'He managed to elude us, Tomansio said reasonably. 'That takes a lot of talent and thought.

'Does it? No offence, but we were rushed, as was the welcome team.

'The welcome team has spent months training for this.

Oscar gave the bottom of his coffee mug a miserable glance. 'I don't know. I just don't get what his long plan is. Everything he's done says to me that he's reacting to events, not controlling them. What we have is a normal bloke caught up in monstrous events and doing his best to keep afloat.

'He could be getting help from some Faction, Beckia said.

'From what my source tells me, he hasn't, Oscar said. 'But we can't rule it out.

'Okay, enough, Tomansio said. 'It's pointless to argue this. Once we find him, we can ask him. In the meantime, we have ourselves the mother of all shadow operations here. He opened a secure link to Liatris. 'Have you located Araminta for me yet?

'No. Sorry, boss. She's disconnected her u-shadow from the Unisphere. Hardly surprising after the apartment raid. I've got monitor programs loaded into every node in the city ready for when she comes back on line. Interestingly, so do a number of other people. And I'm also watching her credit account, but until she comes back out of the Stone Age she's invisible to me.

'All right, what about her history? Anything there to clue us in? Boyfriend? Girlfriend? Someone she'll turn to?

'She's an interesting girl. Recently divorced.

'Husband's location?

'On Oaktier, and migrating inwards.

'Ozzie! Okay, give me something in the city, even if it's just which salon she uses.

'She doesn't have a regular salon.

'Liatris!

'Don't panic, I've got some nuggets for you. And trust me, this took some serious reference matching on her data patterns.

'Go.

'Her cousin, who handled the divorce, is Cressida, a very senior partner in the best law firm in town—extremely well connected locally. And, incidentally, she and a whole group of friends are just about to mug Ethan. Get this, they've hired a passenger ship from Dunbavand lines, one with full diplomatic status to evacuate themselves.

'Really? Tomansio's mind popped a burst of mischievous delight into the gaiafield.

'Relevant? Oscar asked.

'The Dunbavand family is a major Far Away political force. God help Living Dream if they try and interfere with their ship's flight schedule. Forget diplomats squabbling in the Senate; the original Dunbavand patriarch was a Starflyer War hero, which gives his descendants a certain kind of very stubborn mindset. They really would consider dispatching a warship into Viotia orbit to enforce their right of passage. Smart lady, this Cressida.

'One of the tickets she booked is for Araminta, Liatris told them. 'She's also trying to find an offworld investment consortium to buy Araminta's apartment development project.

'Then we watch Cressida.

'Already set up. I've got more scrutineers and monitors surrounding her than Living Dream have followers.

'Excellent. Until Araminta makes contact with Cressida we concentrate on our original objective, riding the welcome team's data wave. Anything from Cheriton?

'No. He's gone down to the docks with Mareble to try and get Danal out of major Honilar's clutches. Once he's done that, we'll have us a very strong ally among the confluence nest technicians.

It might have been the lack of sleep this morning, or the really very strong coffee numbing his synapses, but Oscar was slow mulling over their discussion. Why is she hiding? The welcome team raid was scary, sure, but that wouldn't make her do this, unless she was in the apartment block. And if she was there

'Araminta also spent a weekend with Likan, Liatris said.

'No shit? Tomansio said.

'I'm not sure it's significant. Likan normally works his way through two or three women a week in addition to his harem, and Araminta seems to have been playing the field since her divorce.

'I used to work for Nigel Sheldon, Oscar said. 'I even met him a couple of times when Wilson and I were building up the Navy. He'd be horrified about this modern ideology that's hijacked his name.

'And the relevance is? an exasperated Tomansio asked.

Oscar gave him an apologetic shrug. 'Sorry. Just thinking.

'Is she seeing anyone special? Tomansio asked Liatris.

'Not that I've found yet. I'm running traffic analysis on her capsule, but it's got to be slow and discreet, there are another three similar investigations that I spotted, and that's in addition to Living Dream, which is now officially interested in her. But the local police have found her trike. It was parked at the Tala mall yesterday afternoon. Her last confirmed sighting. Major Honilar has ordered the records from every city sensor to be shoved through visual recognition filters to work out where she went. That should keep them busy for the rest of the day.

'Thanks, Liatris.

'She has to be able to tell us something, Beckia said. 'She had to be badly frightened to vanish like this. I guess that's what Major Honilar does to people.

'Agreed.

Oscar grinned at the two of them. Beckia had said it without even realising, but then it would take someone with his background to make that particular connection. If anyone in the Commonwealth knew all about vanishing, and staying vanished, it was Oscar Monroe. Which just left motivation…

Tomansio caught the grin and frowned. 'What?

'Don't you get it? Oscar was delighted with himself. Well, how about that, the old relic has still got it.

'Get what? Beckia asked.

'I spent decades living a lie, hiding my actual self from everyone I knew and loved and worked with. It's actually a lot easier than you'd think. So I guess it takes one to know one.

Tomansio's square jaw dropped. 'Oh great Ozzie… you think?

'I think it's highly likely.

Beckia hunched forwards, giving Oscar an astonished look. She's the Second Dreamer?

'Give me a better candidate.

'Bloody hell.

'It won't take Honilar long to work it out.

'And when he does, she'll be in deep shit, Tomansio said urgently. 'No local girl will able to stay ahead of the welcome team.

'She's done pretty well so far, Oscar protested.

'You can only get so far on luck, and she's used up her quota. We need to supply some help. Liatris, start laying a false data trail for the good major.

'Give me ten minutes, I'll have him running all over town.

'She was there, wasn't she? Beckia said with growing admiration. 'Somehow. In the apartment when we were looking.

'Unless she spent last month digging a tunnel, yes, Oscar said.

Tomansio gave him a certain look. 'It's still cordoned off.

'Let's go.

Their borrowed capsule was parked on the pad outside. Oscar raced past the waitress, feeling only mildly guilty for not leaving a tip.

* * * * *

It took Araminta two cups of tea and half the packet of biscuits to work up enough nerve to shove the crate to one side and open the door a fraction. There was no one in the vestibule. No sound from anywhere inside the building as far as she could tell. Outside, it was different. The angry shouting was loud. There were thuds as lumps of stone and concrete landed around the paramilitary troops; glass was being smashed constantly. The distinct humming of capsules ebbed and flowed. She strapped on her tool belt, shrugged into a thick fleece jacket to cover it, and headed for the stairwell.

The cordon included a shield reinforcing the broad garage door, which buzzed as if a high voltage current was running through it. In the dim lighting which pervaded the ramp, Araminta could just see a dull sparkle shimmering off the door's surface. There was no way she could get out, it would take a good quantity of enhanced explosives to break through. She turned and headed to the other side of the garage which contained the utilities support area. It was dark inside the first room. Still reluctant to use any power, she fished a torch out of her belt, and walked between two rows of big tanks. At the far end was a smaller door into the waste handling room. She'd only been in here a couple of times before, to make sure the interface with her new units was compatible.

Bulky, quite primitive-looking, machinery filled most of the space; big metal spheres with lots of piping snaking about between them. Araminta wiggled between a couple of water sanitizer cisterns. Behind them, the side wall was a sheer surface of reinforced enzyme-bonded concrete. Just above her head was a rectangular hole where six feed pipes went outside to connect with the main civic water supply. The gap between the top of the pipes and the edge of the concrete was about half a metre. She clambered up one of the sanitizer cisterns, wincing every time she gripped a hot pipe by mistake. That put her level with the hole. A metal grid covered the far end. Grass and soil was pressed up against it.

Gritting her teeth in determination, she dropped her thick fleece and wormed her head and shoulders into the hole. She still had to stretch to apply the power socket against the grille's locking bolts. They were stiff from disuse, and she was scared of making too much noise with the power socket; but after several minutes cursing and blinking sweat from her eyes, the grille came loose. Then it took another five minutes pushing and shoving before the grass and soil gave way. The tool belt had to be discarded before she could claw her way through the uncomfortably claustrophobic gap.

Araminta crawled out onto the narrow strip of grass between the apartment wall and the wooden fence. Blouse torn on snags, skin scratched and bleeding, trouser knees muddy, hair a tangled mess, hot, flushed, and sweaty. She glared back at the little hole. I can't have put on that much weight!

The noise of the crowd was a lot louder. Amplified voices were constantly warning them to back off. A capsule slid over the band of sky above her. She quickly pulled her tool belt out of the hole, and started using the screwdriver on the fence boards. With three of them unfastened she could slip through the triangular opening and into an almost identical strip of ground on the other side. The neighbouring building was a combination of retail and office units; half of which were unoccupied and available for a low rent. She crept along the side of the building to the waste casket bay at the back. The gates beyond opened on to a thin alley of badly cracked concrete. Someone had left an old jacket on the ledge running along the bay. She pulled it on over her torn blouse, and slung the tool belt over her shoulder. Then taking a breath she sauntered out into the alley.

Two of Ellezelin's armour-suited paramilitaries were standing on cordon duty outside the back gate to the apartment block. Araminta ignored them, and walked off down the alley. Every second she expected a challenge, but it never came. After twenty metres she made a sharp left turn down another alley, taking her out of their view. Then she just kept walking.

* * * * *

After for ever he strode through a white jungle. Trees of translucent crystal towered above him, refracting a soft shimmer of pure sunlight, sprouting long white leaves. The undergrowth was thick, creepers and bushes mangled into dense tangles of silver hues that were impossible to push through. White clouds scudded overhead. A cloying mist wove long swirling streamers round the shiny tree trunks, reducing visibility. White birds darted about, triangles of feathers fluttering fast. White rodents scampered round his booted feet. His boots were clotted with white mud from the steaming loam.

'I know it's difficult, said the voice behind the trees. 'But you have to choose.

He longed for colour. Darkness, even. But all the jungle offered was faint shadows. Shapes were starting to blur together. Losing cohesion. The blazing universe was absorbing him. When he lifted up his hands they were hard to see. White on white. Just looking at them was dizzying.

'You can lose yourself. Lose what is. Lose what you have done. Your life will never have existed. Sometimes I wish I could offer that to myself.

Then the enemy started to close in. He saw them all around, little flickers of motion darting through the undergrowth. They were waiting for him. He knew it. It was an ambush.

He yelled defiance at them. His biononics unleashed a terrible burst of energy. Clumps of undergrowth disintegrated into kinetic maelstroms. He was thrown from side to side by the sharp leaf and stone fragments swatting against him. Vision reduced, but still it was all white: in front, on both sides, above, below. White. White. White.

Through it all crept the enemy — malicious, determined, lethal. He blasted away at them. Seeing them burn. Powerful white flame consumed them, sending torrents of white smoke into the sky.

Shot after shot was fired into the suffocating uniform whiteness. It began to constrict about him. No matter how violent his energy discharges they couldn't penetrate it.

'Help me, he cried out to the voice. 'Take me out of this. I choose. I choose! I remember I chose. I wanted not to happen.

He could no longer tell which way was up, and tumbled through the whiteness. His own screams were loud in his ears as the whiteness slipped and banged against his suit visor. Then he hit something which stopped his headlong rush with a suddenness that knocked the wind from him. There at last was another colour, red sparkles of pain danced across his vision as he drew a desperate breath. He closed his eyes, squeezing the lids shut then blinking them open.

Shards of grey-black rock lay sizzling against the ice, slowly sinking in through the puddles they were creating.

'Shit, Aaron groaned gloomily. He forced himself on to all fours, then slowly staggered upright.

The whiteout had got to him, providing an insidious outlet for the demons churning around his subconscious.

What the hell is inside me? What did I try and cast away?

He shook his head, running a full status check through his biononic systems, and reviewed the routines in his macrocellular clusters as well. Cooler air blew into his helmet, allowing him to take some sobering breaths. Looking around he saw he'd left the field of ice boulders behind. The wind had dropped, leaving just a few flurries of snow skipping through the air. Steam was pushing up out of a dozen craters where his energy shots had vaporized the ice. He could see the serrated crystalline boulders lining the horizon behind him. Exovision superimposed his route, sketching it with simple lines of glowing orange. The ground crawler had been easy to follow through the field, scraping past boulders to leave crumbled shards on the ground, or where Inigo had simply carved his way through the smaller gaps. Now they were out on the open top of the glacier it was hard to tell.

Aaron trotted away from the area he'd devastated, circling round. There was no indication of the ground crawler at all. The thin dusting of ice shifted continually, completely eradicating any sign of the tracks. As he stood and watched, his own footprints were smeared away behind him almost as soon as he made them. There was no residual heat signature. It had been at least six hours since Inigo and Corrie-Lyn had driven out of the boulder field. On this frozen world, their infrared traces would have vanished within twenty minutes.

He had absolutely no way of telling which way they'd gone.

'Fuck it. There were no options left. His inertial guidance mapped a route back to Jajaani, via the Olhava camp, the only route he was sure didn't have glacier cliffs or other obstacles. Not that he'd ever get there before the planet imploded, he reflected; but if any rescue attempt was going to happen, that would be where the starship landed. It was all he had left. Simply lying down and waiting for the end wasn't him. Whoever me is.

He started to run again. His biononic energy currents reconfigured to scream a distress signal into the eternal storm.

* * * * *

The local star's azure spectrum shone brightly on the hull of the Mellanie's Redemption as it dropped out of hyperspace five hundred kilometres above Orakum. Troblum accessed the external sensors, seeing a planet that was essentially the same as every human-settled world in the Greater Commonwealth. Blue oceans swathed in puffy white cloud, brown land masses with a fuzz of green. Its electromagnetic emissions were a lot lower than a Central world, reflecting the relatively small population of Advancers and naturals. The kind of world that provided an ideal quiet life. Knowing what he did about Oscar Monroe, Troblum wasn't at all surprised that the old War hero had chosen this place to settle

He ordered the starship's smartcore to enter the atmosphere in full stealth mode. His muscles ached from the crouch position he'd been compressed into for the last ten hours. Even now that he'd finally made some headway into cataloguing and arranging the components into distinct piles, the starboard midsection hold was still badly cramped. He was beginning to worry about the assembly process, which was going to require a decent volume to work in. Not that he was anywhere close to starting that yet.

When Mellanie's Redemption passed through the ionosphere he went back into the cabin and took a quick spore shower. There were still sore patches on his skin where the medical module had repaired the damage he'd received at Florae's villa.

'You should put some cream on those, Catriona told him. The beautiful girl's curly hair bobbed about as she tilted her head to one side, registering deep concern.

'It doesn't matter, he grunted back.

'It matters to us, Trisha cooed.

Troblum pulled his shabby purple toga suit on, somehow strangely concerned about his dignity in front of the two girls. Having them see him naked was oddly disquieting. Back at the Arevalo apartment they never did, the daily routines were all perfectly established. He was comfortable with those. But here in the starship's cabin there was little privacy, and the projectors could throw the images just about everywhere. 'Thank you, he said, hoping it would shut them up — he didn't want to load in program restrictions, not now he'd constructed their personalities so perfectly. 'I'm all right. The last seam on the suit fastened up, and he straightened himself without wincing.

'What are you going to ask him? Tricia asked as the starship sank down through the clouds. Far below the fuselage the sensors had already picked out the white circle of the house set in its rambling grounds on the edge of a vast prairie of native vegetation.

'I just want five minutes of his time, that's all. Then this will all be over.

Troblum switched the stealth effect off when they were below five hundred metres. The starship settled on the big patch of level grass where two capsules were already parked in the shade of tall reddish-brown trees. He walked down the airlock stairs, sniffing the faint alien pollen in the air. Two figures were already hurrying down the spiral stair that was wrapped round the house's central pillar. Although he normally hated the countryside, Troblum had to admit the raised house in this bucolic setting was fabulous.

His u-shadow reported pings being aimed at him by the men walking towards him. He responded courteously enough with his identity certificate, praying they wouldn't send too many queries about him into the Unisphere. The Accelerators would be waiting for any giveaway, though even if they confirmed his location he should be relatively safe from Marius here.

'I'm Dushiku, the first man said. 'Can we help you?

'Is that really your starship? the second one asked. He was younger, definitely a first lifer, everything about him leaked eagerness and an endearing naivety, not just his gaiafield presence. 'It looks fantastic'

'Thank you.

'Are those wings?

'Heat radiators.

'Oh.

'Jesaral, enough, Dushiku chided.

'Sorry.

'I'd like to speak to Oscar, please, Troblum said.

Their attitude changed immediately. Dushiku chopped off his gaiafield emissions as his face hardened. While Jesaral pouted and allowed a wave of upset and worry to spill out of his mind.

'Oscar is not here, Dushiku said stiffly.

'Have I said something wrong?

'No, Jesaral said, his handsome face frowned in misery. 'It's just that Oscar isn't very popular round here right now. He left us in a hurry a few days ago. Apparently we don't mean nearly as much to him as he does to us. That's always good to know, isn't it? Poor old Anja is still crying her eyes out.

Dushiku's arm went round the younger man's shoulder, squeezing in comfort. 'It's okay, he'll be back.

'Who cares? Jesaral said with sudden contempt.

'Do you know when he'll be back? Troblum asked.

'No. Dushiku gave him a sharp look. 'Do you know him?

'We have a mutual friend. It is rather important I contact him.

'His u-shadow is blocking our calls, Jesaral said. 'But don't let that put you off, you might have better luck.

'I'll try that, thank you.

'Really? Dushiku said. 'Why didn't you do that originally instead of coming here?

'I, er… Troblum's social program reported that Dushiku was becoming irate and curious, and he should say something soothing. It didn't say what. 'It's complicated. Where's he gone?

'Ask her, Jesaral said with a effusive glower.

'Who?

'That Paula Myo character. She was the last of his old friends to turn up here unannounced. I didn't know there were so many of you.

Troblum stood perfectly still, staring at the now-wary men. That's a big coincidence. Very big. Why would Paula visit Oscar? And what is he doing now? Could they be working together? I didn't see him at Florae's villa.

'Do you know her? Dushiku asked.

'I know of her. I have to go now. Troblum turned, and made for the airlock ramp.

'Hey!

'Sorry to have bothered you.

'What the hell did you want from him?

'Nothing. Nothing at all.

'Who in Ozzie's universe are you people?

With the ramp under his feet, Troblum felt a lot safer. I U was already ordering the smartcore to power up the drive.

'Give him back to us, Jesaral yelled. 'I want Oscar back. I want my Oscar. You bastard.

The airlock closed. Mellanie's Redemption lifted immediately, accelerating hard, only just keeping subsonic. Troblum knew that was ridiculous, Oscar's lovers didn't present the remotest threat. Yet he wanted to get away from them fast. The stealth effect shrouded the fuselage in a refractive smear as they reached the cloud level. Troblum checked, but there were no sensors probing the sky hunting for him.

'Well they were terrifying, Tricia said contemptuously. She and Catriona were snuggled up together on the cabin's long couch.

'Worse than the Cat.

'You were lucky to get out of there alive.

'Shut up, Troblum snapped.

Both girls pouted, then turned to each other, pawing and stroking like kittens. Troblum ignored them and slumped into a big chair. He was still shocked by the revelation. Paula Myo had visited Oscar! It was the last thing he'd expected. He let out a small grunt of admiration. That was it. Of course, those two working together would be the last thing anyone would expect. So what's he doing for her?

The starship reached four hundred kilometres altitude. Troblum told it to go ftl, and fly ten light years clear from Orakum.

Oscar's Unisphere code hung in his storage cluster. Immensely tempting. But since Sholapur he simply didn't trust the unisphere. Knowing Oscar and Paula were in contact surely gave him some kind of advantage. He just couldn't think what.

Catriona raised her head, and gave him an affectionate look. 'So where are we going?

'Nowhere, he said, coming to a decision. 'I'm going to assemble the ultradrive. After that I'll do what I can to warn Paula and ANA. At least if it all goes wrong then, I can run.

* * * * *

Paula hadn't visited Paris for decades. The city had reduced considerably since its heyday of the First Commonwealth era. ANA had been as ruthless here as it had everywhere on Earth, pruning away buildings it considered irrelevant. Residual national nostalgia didn't carry much weight in its hard-nosed analysis. However, the truly historic remained. The Eiffel Tower, of course. Arc de Triomphe. Notre Dame. The Palais de la Concorde. Most of the original buildings along the Seine.

She teleported in from Sky Pier station above Bordeaux, materializing outside the ancient five-storey building where she'd spent so many centuries working before the days of ANA and Higher culture. Beside the door, the original brass sign still gleamed against the dull stonework.

INTERSOLAR COMMONWEALTH

SERIOUS CRIMES DIRECTORATE

Paula gave it a melancholy smile, and walked into the marbled entrance hall. So many memories haunted this place. Embedded in the structure, they sprang to life everywhere she looked. Images and sounds stronger than the gaiafield could ever produce, and far more meaningful. All those colleagues she'd worked with over the centuries, the cases they'd solved, the battles against innumerable chiefs and political appointees and lawyers. They all echoed round her, welcoming her back.

An ANAdroid was waiting for her at the lift door, a human simulacrum with featureless gold-brown skin. It wore a simple blue and green suit uniform identical to all its kind. There were tens of thousands of them in the city, performing the maintenance and support functions which the antique buildings and their priceless contents needed. Stabilizer generators alone couldn't preserve the city's fabric, not when it was still in use by nearly eighty thousand humans.

'Welcome back, Investigator Myo, it said as the lift doors opened. The voice was as genderless as the body.

'Thank you. Paula put her hand on the security pad, allowing the management system to confirm her DNA. Her u-shadow then had to go through a further lengthy authorization procedure before the lift would descend. They passed through at least two force fields on their way down to the vault. There was also an exotic energy scrambler field around the three sub-levels, preventing anyone from teleporting in, or opening a wormhole inside.

The lift opened into a long hall. It reminded Paula of the ANA reception facilities, where thousands of recently downloaded bodies waited to see if their minds would adapt to the expansion and freedom inside ANA itself. Only here, instead of the glowing violet spheres, the floor supported long rows of dark sarcophagi.

'This way, the ANAdroid said, and gestured politely.

Paula accompanied it, their footsteps echoing round the vault. 'How many are stored here? she asked.

'We currently provide suspension for eighteen hundred and forty-three people.

She wondered how many she was responsible for entombing down here. A good percentage, I'll guess.

'Most still have several hundred years to serve on their sentence, the ANAdroid said. 'Some exceptional cases will remain down here a great deal longer. A few are even scheduled to remain for longer than the city has already existed.

'Yes, Paula said as they stopped beside one of the bulky suspension cases. And this is one of them. 'I'd like to see her, please.

'You may use a field scan. It will not interfere with the suspension systems, they are quite robust.

'Open it.

'As you wish.

The suspension case's malmetal lid flowed apart. Paula looked down at the body inside. The Cat lay there, her body webbed with the silver threads used to provide long-term suspension, ensuring her cells remained intact throughout the sluggish centuries as she lay poised on the cusp between life and death. 'All hail Schrodinger, Paula muttered. Her field scan swept through the Cat, confirming the small scars and burn patches that she'd acquired in that last ferocious firefight which resulted in her capture. The hospital had healed her for the trial. At the time, several senior members of the Directorate, and indeed the President's office itself, had questioned why Paula had allowed her to survive. Political types to whom the rule of law was an irksome guideline to be bent or broken with impunity at every convenience.

Paula nodded in satisfaction. This was definitely her old adversary. The original one at least. Not that originality stood for much any more.

'How many people have visited her?

The ANAdroid wasn't designed for surprise, but it somehow managed to convey that impression. 'Your inspection three hundred and eighty years ago is the only one, Investigator.

'Thank you, she told the ANAdroid. That was the time when a political group on Far Away had boasted that they'd managed to extract their idol from purgatory. They hadn't of course, it was just a bid to gain more influence.

The lid flowed back into place, sealing the Cat back into a darkness that was due to last for another four thousand years.

* * * * *

'Are you satisfied now? ANA: Governance asked as Paula emerged out into the mellow Parisian daylight.

'Not entirely, no.

'It is not possible to break into the Directorate vault.

'I know. But there are a few other possibilities. Resurrecting her is something I've given a lot of thought to over the centuries. There are still plenty of fanatics out there.

'The Knights Guardian don't actually want her alive and walking round. It is politically convenient to have a leader who will return in the far future. That gives them plenty of leeway.

'Now where have I heard that before.

'This is a strange weakness of yours, Paula.

'We're all entitled to one.

'So do you still believe it was her on Sholapur?

'I think it's a strong possibility that I encountered a full clone version.

'Her DNA is probably easy to obtain. But where would they get a copy of her memory? We know she never had a secure store, she was too worried your Directorate would gain access to it.

'Her weakness, Paula said flatly. 'However, there is one copy that I know of. I'll check it out.

'I'm not being critical, but there are other matters that require attention. Quite urgent attention. If the respite Justine has bought us is to have any value, I must know what the Accelerators are planning.

'Are you trying to guilt me into chasing round after Marius and his cronies?

'I have to use guilt?

'If the Cat has been brought back in some form by the Accelerators, they clearly want her for some very dirty deniable work. But, as I suspect they're discovering, she's not easy to control. Her personal agenda will always come first. I can use that to catch her. Once she's in custody, she can be fully interrogated.

'An interesting application of logic'

'But logical nonetheless.

'Assuming you're correct about Sholapur.

'I believe a great deal of my usefulness to you comes from my instinct, a facet of personality you have yet to acquire.

'Correct.

'Thank you. However, you are right about following other leads. I reviewed Troblum's file on my way here. That presentation he made to Kazimir was very interesting.

'Yes. I considered it to be well argued, and highly plausible.

'That's not what I mean. It implies he has a very strong knowledge of the Dark Fortress itself.

'The Navy maintains an effective force around the Dyson Pair, it would not be possible for him to gain access to either of I hem.

'It would if he was part of the Navy science team. There aren't many people, especially Highers, who have his physical profile. Please review all the Navy personnel to have served at the Dyson Pair since the Starflyer War.

There wasn't even a moment of hesitation. 'That was an excellent deduction. I have the file.

Paula examined it. The identity was recorded as one Kent Vernon, a physicist from Salto. Exoimage showed her a face similar to Troblum's, but with ebony skin. 'He darkened his pigmentation considerably, though that face is definitely recognizable. Oh, of course, that name. He is descended from Mark Vernon. She smiled at the memory of Mark, a man really out of his depth, but a thoroughly decent human being. 'And Mark was married to Liz, who was Afro-American. Very neat, she complimented. 'If lacking in imagination. I'm surprised his Accelerator controller allowed that.

'He served a six month tour duty on the Navy Exploration Division science ship Poix fifty-six years ago, ANA reported. 'That particular research mission was concentrating on the inner two lattice spheres. They made some progress mapping tin-integral quantum function. Though the navy project is still ongoing; we still don't quite understand the mechanism behind the Dark Fortress.

'Even you?

'Even me.

'And according to his file "Kent Vernon" subsequently downloaded into you, Paula said as she scanned the exoimage. 'That ties up any loose ends as far as an inconvenient outside investigation is concerned. So let's see what real facts we can find. Her u-shadow called up the records from Troblum's apartment, and Daroca's utilities. Those for the period fifty-six years ago were already deep cached, but they were soon accessed with her authority rating. 'Look at that power consumption rate, she said.

'Nominal, for ten years. Implying Troblum wasn't there. Whatever he was doing took him off Arevalo for a decade.

'What kind of device takes a decade to build?

'His planet-shifting ftl drive has taken longer.

'Yes, but that was his personal obsession, and he was doing it with a minimal MEA budget. What would take the Accelerators ten years, with all their resources? And how is it connected to Dark Fortress technology?

'That was what Troblum wanted to tell you.

'Why didn't he just come straight out with it? she said in annoyance.

'He is a genuine paranoid. Understandably, given the clandestine projects he's been associated with, and under the supervision of Marius. A paranoia which was fully vindicated by events on Sholapur. He has probably left the Commonwealth altogether now. His starship seems quite capable of such a flight, even without ultradrive.

'I'd certainly like to leave, so I can believe that, Paula admitted. 'Unfortunately, wishful thinking is a luxury right now. List everyone who served with Troblum, and mine their history, please; start with his captain.

'The captain of the Poix was Donald Chatfield. A Higher, currently resident on Ganthia.

'All right, I concede this is more pertinent than the lead I have on the Cat. I'll go and interview Chatfield.

'As you wish.

'And you really can't guess what the Accelerators might have built?

'No. According to Gore, they wish to duplicate me and fuse this replica with the Void to initiate post-physical evolution. The systems to initialize another such as myself would be complex, but they wouldn't require any input from the Dark Fortress technology.

'Will that fusion work?

'Who knows?

'Very well, I'll call in as soon as I have something. Paula activated her field interface function, designating her exit coordinate. Earth's T-sphere immediately translated her back up to Sky Pier. As she crossed the reception centre to the station terminus her u-shadow told her Kazimir was calling.

'Bad news, he said.

Paula's heart performed a little flutter. There weren't many people left in the galaxy she cared about, but Justine was one of them. 'Justine?

'No. I have no further information on mother, which as far as I'm concerned is good news… But I am in contact with the Lindau.

'I don't know the ship.

'It's the Navy scout I dispatched to Hanko to monitor the whole Aaron situation for you.

'And?

'They don't have the best sensors in the fleet, but there's something wrong with the planet.

'Wrong in what way?

'Its gravity. We believe someone has fired a Hawking m-sink into it.

'Oh Christ. No! Why would they do that? It's a dead planet anyway.

'The Restoration project base at Jajaani has stopped broadcasting. Lindau is still picking up some of the project's surface beacons, so it looks as if the base itself was targeted.

'But an m-sink? That's a monstrous overkill. We know those ships were ultradrive, they'll be equipped with weapons powerful enough to take out an undefended civilian base.

'I don't know the reason, I'm just reporting the results. Naturally, there's no sign of either ultradrive ship.

'Naturally.

'However—

'Ah! Yes?

'The Lindau has also picked up a very powerful distress signal from the surface. It's a standard biononic emission. Nobody listed as a member of the Restoration team was Higher.

'So it's either Aaron, or Inigo himself.

'Yes. Which leaves me with a rather painful decision. With an m-sink eating away at its core, that planet isn't going to last much longer. The Lindau estimates a few hours more at best before the mantle starts to readjust prior to implosion, at which point nothing is going to survive. So, do they land at Jajaani and see if there are any survivors?

'No, she said immediately. 'They have to recover whoever is sending that signal with biononics.

'One person.

'If the m-sink hit at Jajaani, there will be nothing to recover from there, not even bodies, and certainly not any secure memory stores. Everyone working in Restoration projects knows there are risks, they all have back up memories and DNA samples on their homeworld. They will be re-lifed. If there is the slightest chance that survivor is Inigo, or can tell us where Inigo is, then you have to rescue them.

'I was thinking along those lines myself, but it's always satisfying to receive your endorsement. I'll speak with the captain, and keep you updated.

'Kazimir.

'Yes?

'Warn them to take extreme precautions. If it is Aaron down on the surface, there's no telling what he'll do.

'I know. I'll emphasise the need for caution.

Paula drew a deep breath, and gazed down through the transparent hull section of Sky Pier's reception centre. Bordeaux was spread out below the station, lush and beautiful in the lazy sunlight. She'd visited a few times when the vineyards were still producing their renown wine, and the remaining citizens stubbornly resisted the advances which the Commonwealth provided. Something about the area and its culture had made her feel comfortable and welcome, satisfying that deep human yearning for a simple life, a fundamental which had never been sequenced out of her psyche by her creators. She wondered what its long-departed people would make of today's life with all its associated bizarre problems. Somehow she suspected they'd be less than impressed.

Looking down on the region again, a small part of her wanted to just teleport down there and settle in one of the remaining homes. Cut off communication, deactivate her biononics; leaving her far away from Kazimir and Aaron and Marius and the Cat, and all the rest of it. Supposedly, there were several primitive groups on Earth, living as their ancestors had two thousand years ago. ANA always denied it, but rumours persisted. Not this time, though, she decided. So she walked into the terminus with its glowing Cherenkov light from the wormhole which led back to Orleans. From there another wormhole connected directly to Arevalo. By the time she got back to Daroca spaceport, the Alexis Denken would have been resupplied, and the medical chamber replaced. The starship would be ready to fly her onwards. Again.

* * * * *

It had been over a year since Araminta had visited the house. At the time, she'd looked on the compact drycoral building as a development project, seeing costs and returns in everything, ignoring the family which had welcomed her in and given her a lovely Sunday dinner. Now, when the door opened, and Tandra's face peered out, Araminta couldn't help herself, she burst into tears. Life hadn't been so bad back when she was waiting tables in Nik's. It really hadn't, she'd been part of a larger collective family, Tandra and the other waitresses had included her in their gossip and lives, they'd hung out together between shifts, and some evenings they'd gone out in a big group having a good time even though she'd been flat broke. The very same people she'd ignored and left behind once Laril's money had come through. Tandra's immediate unqualified concern and graciousness at the stray appearing unannounced on her doorstep simply made Araminta feel even more wretched.

'There there, Tandra crooned and gave her a motherly hug. 'It's all right. Martyn, her husband was also attentive, clearing the kids' toys from the settee in the living room. Mixal and Freddy, their five-year-old twins, were given fruit smoothies to hush them up while Araminta blew into tissues and tried to get her sobbing under control. 'I'm sorry, she wailed. 'I shouldn't have come. I've nowhere else to go. And at the back of her mind was the worry that just by being here she was putting Tandra's family in danger.

'You're more than welcome, and you know that, her old friend told her. 'Did you have a fight? Have you left him? She was giving Araminta's roughed up clothes a highly suspicious examination.

'No. Nothing like that. There's a whole bunch of people in the park outside my apartment. They're very angry. The invader soldiers are there as well. I was frightened.

'Those bastards, Martyn grunted.

Tandra shot him a warning look, her gaze darting pointedly to the twins who were watching intently over the back of a chair they were sharing. 'Yes they are unpleasant people, who have behaved wrongly, she said with parental formality. 'However, the law will prevail, and they will be expelled from our world.

Martyn rolled his eyes. 'Yes. They will.

'And until they do, you can sleep on the couch, Tandra assured her.

'Just for one night, Araminta promised. 'That's all. I need to get myself back together.

'No boyfriend? Martyn asked.

'Not right now, Araminta lied.

He didn't say anything, but his tight little smile triggered a fresh wave of Araminta's guilt. She didn't dare delve into the gaiafield to learn his emotional state.

'We're staying here at home for the rest of the afternoon, Tandra said. 'The twins are having the day off school as a treat, aren't you?

'Yes! they yelled gleefully.

Martyn was looking out of the window. 'How did you get here?

'Walked.

'From where?

'Hodant.

'Th;it's miles!

'They won't allow capsules to fly, and my trike pod is being fixed.

Tandra and Martyn exchanged a look. 'You sit there and rest, Tandra said. I'll give those clothes a wash. Martyn, some tea.

'Coming right up.

'Thank you, Araminta said meekly.

Tandra waited until he'd vanished into the galley kitchen. 'Anything else you need to tell me?

Araminta shook her head. 'I really will go in the morning. I've already got an idea what to do. There's someone I need to talk to. I'll call him tomorrow. When I've worked out how to.

'Okay. I'd better go get a robe for you. Martyn will have a heart attack if he sees you walking round the place in your underwear. She patted her own legs. 'He's only used to women a size or ten bigger than a youngster like you.

Araminta grinned. 'I missed you.

'Sure you did. Out there enjoying yourself every night, I bet you thought of me the whole time. She gave the twins a critical look. 'I swore I'd never have any kids again this life around, this one would be for me, but what the hell… A girl doesn't stand a chance with a Love God like Marty.

Araminta started laughing. Then stopped, casting a guilty look at the kitchen archway.

'That's better, Tandra said. 'You have the world's greatest smile, honey, that's why the rest of us always insisted on pooling the tips on your shifts. She ruffled both of the children as she went past. They gave her an adoring look. 'I just love the sleepless nights, the worry, losing my figure, no money, and lack of sex. It's character building.

'I'm going to find out myself one day.

'Sure you will. And your introduction starts today. Her voice rose a couple of levels. 'Guess what, Aunty Araminta is on dinner duty tonight. Then she's going to give you both a bath and wash your hair.

'Yes! the twins yelled jubilantly.

'Still want to stay?

'Oh yes, Araminta said. This house, Tandra, the twins: it felt like an oasis of decency amid the madness raging outside. After the last two days, she badly needed to remind herself what normal was. Then I might be able to work out how to get back there myself.

* * * * *

Seven hundred years ago, Wilson Kime had officially handed over control of the Commonwealth Navy to Kazimir. It was the fifth time Wilson had held the role of Supreme Commander, on that occasion it was essentially a ceremonial appointment, lasting a single year before he downloaded into ANA. His final farewell to the physical.

After the formal hand over for the benefit of the President, senior Senators, and Unisphere reporters, the two of them had gone up to the Admiral's office on the top floor of the thirty-storey Pentagon II tower. Wilson had given Kazimir two pieces of advice as they stood looking across the agreeable parkland of the Babuyan Atoll dome.

'Don't ever give in to political pressure, Wilson had said. 'I've been President myself, so I know the convenience of a military who'll snap to and say yes to every dark instruction you issue. Resist them. Stick to the fundamentals. We have two roles as ordained by the Senate in more honourable times: protecting the human race in all its forms against alien aggressors, and peaceful scientific exploration of the galaxy. That's all. Don't let the Executive wear that down. The general population must have faith in us.

'I can hold the line, Kazimir assured him.

'And second, feel free to change this goddamn office. I always hated it; never got round to redecorating, so now every crappy white molecule qualifies as tradition because this is the way it was when we gained our victory over MorningLightMountain. Every other admiral from Rafael onwards just rolled over and accepted that. I want you to give the conservation fascists a good kicking and bring in your own furniture.

Kazimir smiled at the man's strange passion. They shook hands. 'I will, he promised.

To date, he'd proudly held that line through some extraordinary difficult political events. The second promise hadn't been broken, exactly. Like Wilson, he just hadn't got round to changing things yet.

Today he looked out of the office to see a circular habitat that also hadn't changed that much in the last seven centuries. Pentagon II was still the same (which was more than could be said of the original back on Earth that ANA had decided wasn't significant enough to maintain); several buildings had been reshaped, High Angel adapting their growing-stone material in accordance to each new set of human requirements. It was the living parkland itself which had seen the most alteration, the average level of the tree canopy had risen by over fifty metres since the day Kazimir had assumed command. Under the protective dome of the Raiel arkship, the organic environment was perfect. Every species of tree prospered in a way they could never do on a planet with variable seasons and winds and fires and earthquakes and diseases and parasites and bark-eating creatures. Here there was no real reason for them to die, so they just kept on growing, nurtured by their flawless climate. There were some monster arboreals out there, twenty or so had even reached the same height as Pentagon II, their osmosis now assisted by High Angel which had reduced the gravity field around them, allowing nutrients to flow unhindered all the way to the topmost branches. It was a forest which could never exist on a planet, and all the more alluring because of it.

When he glanced up, Kazimir saw Icalanise was a slim tawny crescent overhead. The New Storm seemed to bulge out of the Great Northern cloudband. He'd been watching the moon-sized storm growing for two centuries now, absorbing all the smaller storms it clashed with to become the largest of all the gas-giant's cyclonic swirls. Human starships flittered around the orbital cluster of stations and micro-gee factories like a metallic shoal, mostly Navy craft, with a few commercial freighters and passenger ships. High Angel was still the largest navy port in the Greater Commonwealth. Its residents took a lot of pride in that, supplying a disproportionate amount of officers.

Kazimir gathered his thoughts and returned to his big white desk. The office's ancient tragwood furniture really was aesthetically awful, made worse by the clinical glowing walls and ceiling. But he did concede it was comfortable as he sank back into the cushioning.

'Convene the ExoProtectorate Council, he told his u-shadow. The office dissolved from his natural vision, leaving him in the perceptual conference room with its white and orange furniture (not much of an improvement on his own, he reflected sadly) looking out over the tempestuous furore of the Millavian plains.

Gore and Ilanthe appeared first, sitting next to each other. The Accelerator faction representative had changed her appearance since the last meeting, allowing her dark hair to hang down to her waist in a single tail wrapped with red leather bands; she wore a stylish black dress of horizontal pleats. She nodded politely to Gore, who was in his golden incarnation, dressed in a perfectly tailored tuxedo.

'Any news of Justine? Ilanthe asked.

Gore's gaze flicked to the chair Justine had occupied last time the Council convened. 'Nothing. I guess we'll have to wait to see if the Second Dreamer deigns to reveal anything to us.

Crispin Goldreich arrived. The ancient Senator gave Justine's chair a look. 'Gore. Kazimir, he said formally. 'My sympathies to both of you.

'Yeah, thanks, Gore said.

'I prefer to consider her successfully positioned to assist us further, Kazimir said. 'She has achieved something remarkable, after all.

'Yes, Crispin said sheepishly.

Creewan materialised in his chair, to the left of Kazimir. The Custodian faction member gave the Admiral a formal bow. He hadn't completed the motion when the Darwinist faction representative, John Thelwell, arrived in a seat on the opposite side of the table. The two of them always seemed to appear at the same time. Kazimir wondered idly if there was some kind of alliance involved, though how such diverse factions could find any common ground was a mystery.

'Aren't you going to activate Justine's ANA personality? John Thelwell asked in some surprise.

'Why? Gore asked. 'Her actual is still alive. Duplication is still our biggest anathema, isn't it? Or have you converted to that pervert multiple philosophy.

Thelwell threw up his hands. 'Fine. If that's how you want to play it.

'If you're ready, Kazimir said. 'I have the secure link to the Yenisey available.

'All right, Gore said. 'Let's take a look and see what the Ocisens have come up with.

* * * * *

Captain Lucian was proud of his small crew. For nine days the Yenisey had flown in pursuit of the greatest fleet of warships the Ocisens had ever assembled. If intelligence summaries about the Starslayer class ships was correct, then not even MorningLightMountain had enjoyed this level of firepower to deploy against the Commonwealth. Unsurprisingly, then, tension on board had been building as they closed on the fleet. Yet he considered they'd coped remarkably well. This mission wasn't anything they'd expected or trained for, however as one they had risen to the challenge. Toi, the systems officer, actually relished the chance to confront the Ocisens.

'They've learned nothing in five hundred years, she said. 'They genuinely believe we're just a bunch of decadent animals who got lucky on the technology front. We are the classical immovable object in their way, and all they do is crack what passes for a head against us. They don't try to learn or adapt.

'This fleet is proof they have tried to think round the problem, Kylee, the first tactical officer argued. 'They saw what they needed to overcome us, and they set out to obtain it. That's adaptive.

'They set out to steal it, Toi said.

'Negotiating an allegiance is hardly stealing.

'I don't believe they could do that. They found the leftovers of a post-physical, and bootstrapped themselves up a whole weapons-level.

'Even that's pretty adaptive.

The argument had been just about continuous. The four of them had completely different positions, not that it interfered with their tasks. Although Lucian was slightly concerned about Gieovan, the second tactical officer, whose solution to the whole Ocisen problem was unpleasantly crude. He would be allying himself directly to the Accelerators at download, Lucian decided, if not the Isolationists or possibly the more radical Darwinists. For a moment, he did worry about confronting the fleet with Gieovan's hand on the trigger of their formidable arsenal. But none of them ever allowed their personal views to affect their professionalism. He was confident they'd deliver the result Admiral Kazimir had tasked them with.

For eighteen hours they'd flown beside the Ocisen fleet in stealth mode, and monitored the alien warships. To Lucian's huge relief, they were all Ocisen.

'Unless they've got stealth, Kylee pointed out after the first hour.

'You can't stealth a continuous wormhole drive, Gieovan countered. 'In any case, you can only minimalize the hyperdrive emission and damp down its distortion effect. You're never truly stealthed to a top-level sensor array. Detection and concealment technology are a constant race for superiority.

'But we're not registering anything? Lucian asked.

'No, captain, Gieovan. 'We could use more active scanning, of course, but that would give us away.

'Let's not make this any more difficult. Continue monitoring their communications. We need to identify the command ship.

The Ocisen fleet hierarchy was of course a replica of their imperial structure, with the Emperor's nest having ultimate authority. Individual captains had very little leeway. Consequently the communication traffic reflected that, with one ship issuing orders to everyone else. There was no cross-ship chatter.

Once they'd identified the command ship beyond any doubt, Lucian called Admiral Kazimir and received authorization for the interception.

'Knock them out of ftl, Kazimir said, 'and deliver our warning. They are to turn around or every ship will be disabled.

'I'm not quite sure we can achieve that, Lucian said. 'The Yenisey packs a hell of a punch, but there's over two and a half thousand ships out there, including nine hundred Starslayers. If even twenty of them combine, they can get through our shields.

'Lucian, I could never countenance disabling the fleet in deep space, not when they're already so far past the Empire's boundary. They simply don't have the ships nor resources to mount a viable rescue operation. The crews would perish. That is not something I wish to have on my conscience, nor that of any of my officers. No, today is simply a reminder of our technological superiority. I suspect it will have to be repeated several times until they realize they cannot physically achieve their goal.

'Understood, sir, Lucian said with some relief.

The four of them settled on their couches in the main cabin, and merged with the smartcore. It gave them a perceptual viewpoint from the front of the fuselage. Yenisey curved away beneath them, the main hull was a fat cylinder eighty metres long, with a conical nose section. Midships sprouted three radial fins supporting bulbous weapons nacelles, each of which curved down to a sharp point. A uniform luminous blue representation of hyperspace flowed around them, as though they were some yacht sailing an ocean.

Lucian was fed senses that revealed flaws in the blueness, a constellation of dark splinters surrounded by a green haze of exotic energy: the Ocisen warships. He directed the Yenisey until it was holding station a kilometre away from the command ship.

'Are we ready? he asked quietly.

'Yes, sir, Kylee replied.

'Excellent. Gieovan, you have fire authority as of now. Keep scanning for any anomalous activity — just in case. Toi, I want total systems availability, high-status. He scanned the Ocisen ship. It was two hundred and fifty metres long, a fat ovoid shape, with thin edges like curving wings. The hull was rough, strewn with irregular lumps, as if it had somehow become encrusted with barnacles during its flight. Although the scan couldn't perceive its colour, he knew it would be a dull metallic shade, dappled by furry green patches. All Ocisen starships were like that after they developed their semi-organic extrusion technology.

'Pull it out, he told Kylee.

The Yenisey's energy manipulators produced wildly fluctuating waveforms that intersected the exotic energy cascading fluidly around the Starslayer. Instabilities immediately started to skitter along its wormhole. Kylee analysed the modifier effects which the warship's drive exerted in an attempt to regain control, and simply overwhelmed them with the raw power available to the Yenisey's systems. The rest of the fleet shot away from them as the wormhole's pseudofabric broke down. Within a second they had vanished into the blueness.

Spacetime reasserted itself, swamping the blueness with infinite black. Stars shone with unwavering intensity. Eight hundred metres away, the massive Ocisen warship started a laborious tumble. Its protective force fields flickered dangerously as uncontained energy pulses swept out from the ruined drive.

'Attention Ocisen ship, Lucian broadcast. 'This is the Greater Commonwealth Navy ship Yenisey. You are hereby ordered to turn your fleet around and return to—

'Oh, shit, Gieovan gulped.

A smooth spherical starship appeared from nowhere a kilometre ahead of the Starslayer. Its force fields were impenetrable. The Yenisey couldn't even get an accurate quantum signature scan to determine what kind of drive it used.

'Admiral, Lucian called urgently. 'We can't—

The unknown ship fired.

* * * * *

'What the fuck was that! Gore yelled as the secure link abruptly vanished.

Kazimir took a second to review the TD link data, he was so surprised. His tactical staff had produced a number of scenarios, mostly incorporating the Ocisens utilizing weapons technology they'd procured from a more advanced species. This hadn't been a remote consideration.

'I don't recognize that design at all, Ilanthe said. 'Do we have any spherical ship on the Navy's intelligence registry?

'There are some species that utilize a sphere, Kazimir said slowly as his u-shadow supplied their most highly classified data. 'But we don't list anything that can disable the River-class star ships quite that quickly.

'Disable? Gore snapped. 'What is that, the new politically correct term for blowing it to shit?

'All we know so far is that the Yenisey's TD link has failed— Kazimir began.

'Come on!

'I'm afraid I agree with Gore, Ilanthe said. 'That was not a warning shot. Yenisey is a warship, one of the best we've got, and designed to operate at long distances. The last thing that fails is the communication. After all, we kept in touch with Justine until the Void swallowed her.

'My staff will run a full analysis, Kazimir said. 'It should help define the nature of the attack.

'The weapon, you mean, Crispin said. 'I'm with Gore on this, Admiral, you can't start hiding behind language. All of us here today are long past that.

'You are correct, Kazimir said, knowing that they were right, the Yenisey was lost with all hands. It was hard, he hadn't lost a starship in combat in six hundred years, not since the last Ocisen expansion wave. The crew would be re-lifed, of course, but still he had to endure the fact that he'd sent them out there into a hostile environment, while they were woefully under-equipped. It was a classic command failure, deploying your people on the

basis of bad information under political pressure. The wonder of hindsight.

'In the light of this catastrophe, I propose we send our deterrent fleet to intercept the Ocisen Empire ships, Ilanthe said. 'I don't believe we have any choice. Following the loss of the Yenisey, we are seeing a very real and credible threat to the entire Commonwealth. Who knows what that unknown ship is capable of.

'They are still a long way off, Kazimir said. 'We can use that interval to discover what their full potential is.

'You're playing God with our future, Creewan said. 'I for one won't tolerate that.

Kazimir gave him a withering look. 'I hardly think one unknown warship constitutes an end to our civilization.

'You don't know it's just one, Ilanthe said. 'You don't know if that was their best weapon, or their equivalent of a bow and arrow. Kazimir, what is wrong with you? You are charged with defending our entire species. Will you please act as if you care?

'I care very much indeed. I continue to maintain we need intelligence on the ally which the Ocisens have found themselves. I would like to propose that we send at least one more scout mission to determine what we can of the threat level. We do have time, and I am reluctant to formulate a final response without greater intelligence.

Ilanthe glanced round the table. 'I will support that on the condition you at least mobilize the deterrent fleet. If the next interception is destroyed, then the deterrent fleet must be deployed against the Ocisens.

'I second that, Gore said.

The other three gave their assent.

'I will dispatch four Capital-class ships, Kazimir said. 'They should be there within five days.

'I'm not familiar with Capital-class ships, John Thelwell said. 'Are they part of the deterrent fleet?

'No. They are a grade below that. But I am confident they will be able to hold their own, at least until we know more about the Ocisen's allies.

Gore and Kazimir remained in the perceptual reality after the others left. Outside the window, the ice meteorites fell in silent splendour, triggering vast electron webs across the dark sky.

'You know, in all my time, and for all my clout with ANA, I've never managed to get a single hint out of it concerning the deterrent fleet, Gore said.

'I would hope not, Kazimir told him. 'It is our ultimate defence. Its nature should not be available for scrutiny and discussion, however well intentioned. It is enough that we have it.

'Now there's the thing, see. Down at my most basic level, I'm an old fashioned boy, rooted in the physical and distrusting of politicians. I'd hate to think our entire survival prospects are based on a cosmic-sized poker bluff. His golden face looked straight at Kazimir. 'Do we actually have a deterrence fleet, son? Is it real?

'It is real, Grandfather. And if the Ocisen allies prove stronger than our Capital-class, I will personally lead it into battle against the Empire's fleet.

'All right then. Forgive an old man his quirks.

'Of course.

'So what do we do about your mother?

'Wait until she contacts us.

'You think she will?

'I think she's probably Mayoress of Makkathran by now.

'Yeah, Gore grunted. 'You're probably right. But how will we ever know?

'Ask the Second Dreamer.

* * * * *

Aaron was making good time. He'd already retraced the entire route back to the Olhava camp. Now it was just a simple jog across nine hundred kilometres of a dead planet's broken, frozen, radioactive ground, and he'd be back at Jajaani. Which the impact would have reduced to a fractured nightmare of geology where the few survivors from the outlying camps would be mounting futile rescue attempts. Still, it was his only chance. Not that cheating death meant anything to him. This way was the only possible way to salvage his mission. He was still furious at himself for being so gullible. Inigo must have been playing him from the moment he walked into the excavation chamber. Leaking weak thoughts and meek emotions into the gaiafield, lulling him to a level of trust. Stupid. I would never have let it happen if I was thinking straight.

But too late for self-recrimination now. If he did get out of this, he'd have to maintain a keen watch on his own motivations and responses, make sure they hadn't degraded further under the assault of the unknowns in his subconscious.

The land he was jogging through was an ancient undulating volcanic plain, scoured of vegetation and crisped over by a thick skin of ice; residue of the deluge that had swept down from the highlands to the south during the last burst of weather before the temperature plummeted. Odd splinters of rock stuck up through the dull grey crust, torn out of the bedrock by the final inundation of water. Ice particles swirled constantly, as patchy as any summer morning fog. Dense clouds zephyred round in the windshadow of the outcrops, drumming hard on his suit as he moved through them.

His macrocellular clusters were still picking up the beacon line back to Jajaani. There was no communication traffic — other than his own distress call. The beacons simply stood there, tiny glows of virtual light across the forlorn world. The next one was eight kilometres ahead.

Aaron's u-shadow reported someone sweeping a communication beam across him. He shook his head in disbelief, momentarily suspicious this was another attempt by his subconscious to subvert him. Exovision displays started to show solid data. The broadcast point was directly overhead, and using the same emergency band as his own distress call.

'This is the Navy scout ship Lindau, are you receiving us?

Aaron stopped dead, and lifted his head to the dreadful tumble of grey clouds. 'Hello?

The signal beam immediately strengthened and focused. 'Ozzie be damned, who the hell are you?

'Cyrial, he said, picking a name at random from the Restoration staff they'd interviewed back at Jajaani.

'Well, Cyrial, this is the luckiest day of your lives. Stay put, we're coming down to pick you up.

'Have you found anyone else?

'No, sorry, you're the first.

Aaron stood and waited as the scoutship fought its way through the clouds in a burst of violent lightning. Ingrav units strained against the wind, lowering it metre by metre. The ship was a broad cylinder, thirty-eight metres long, its comprehensive sensor clusters retracted into stumpy fins around its midsection. Two thermal dissipater rings around the rear fuselage glowed a bright ruby-red, indicating how much power it was drawing on to hold steady against the fierce atmosphere. Snow hammered against its force field, kicking out a blue sparkle.

Malmetal landing struts swelled out fore and aft, and it came to rest ten metres in front of him.

'You will never believe how good you look to me, Aaron told his rescuers.

'We got us a pretty good idea. The airlock expanded open, and a short ramp slid out. 'Sorry about this, but we've been told we have to take precautions. Nobody knows who attacked the Restoration project base. We have to hold you in isolation while we scan you and confirm your identity.

'Man, you can shack up with every daughter I ever fathered for all I care. I'll even give you their Unisphere codes. Pretty things they are, too. Aaron brought every weapons insert he had to full power, adjusted his biononic energy currents for extreme combat, and walked up the ramp.

Justine

The moment after Justine realized she wasn't dead was the most tranquil point in her entire life. What, as a five-year-old, she'd imagined walking into biblical heaven would be like, just lacking the angels. Once she acknowledged she actually was still alive, she checked round while the feeling shrank back down, as if wounded by her practicality. She could hear her heart beating. She was breathing. Exoimages revealed other body functions were nominal, including the macrocellular clusters and biononics. The cabin lighting remained on. Gravity field held steady.

'Status? she asked the Silverbird's smartcore.

'Life support operational. Secondary systems performing at optimal post-damage level. Hyperdrive inoperative.

'What's wrong with it?

The smartcore didn't respond at once, which sent a chill down her spine. If it was taking this long to diagnose the failure, the damage must be significant. She stood up, and walked over to the galley alcove. The bruising on her legs and back from getting thrown around made her draw a breath.

'Quantum state of this location does not correspond to external universe parameters.

'Wow, Justine replied. She stared at the section of bulkhead nearest to the smartcore. Well, we knew it was different inside the Void. 'Okay, show me where here is, please.

Her exoimage wrapped her in the view gathered by the hull sensors. Justine gasped in delight as the glowing nebulas of the Void shimmered softly all around her. As she watched, she could see movement amid some of the far-flung patches of luminescence — just as they had when the Waterwalker gazed up at them from Querencia. Stars glinted through the exotic ragged veils, lightyears distant.

Wait… distant? In every direction?

'Where's the Void's boundary?

'Unknown, the smartcore replied.

'But we came through it less than a minute ago.

'Yes.

Oh crap. 'What about nearby objects? Can you sense anything? Like the Skylord?

'No radar return inside five million kilometres. No visual acquisition of any large mass. Hysradar inoperative. No local gravity field registering.

'Hell. It's dumped me in the middle of nowhere. Justine slumped down in the chair, at a loss what do to, or feel. Then she remembered one of the marvels of the Void. / wonder. She smiled tentatively, and looked at the glass of chilled white wine the culinary unit had just produced for her. Closed her eyes, and tried to let her mind find it. Strange shadows swept through the darkness, a lot duller than anything she'd ever perceived in the gaiafield. Justine snapped her eyes open. Farsight! 'Okay then, now we're cooking. She smirked at the wine glass, and imagined reaching out for it, lifting it high. The surface of the pale white liquid trembled, producing a tiny ripple. Then the base of the glass tilted up a fraction. 'Yes! she laughed exultantly. Another ten minutes saw the glass shift a couple of inches.

All right, not exactly the Waterwalker's strength, but I've only just got here. And it's all real. Every single one of Inigo's dreams is real. Holy shit.

'Start cataloguing the constellations, she told the smartcore. 'See if you can find any which match the ones that are visible from Querencia. Also, locate the nearest star.

Once it had begun that task she stripped off and went for a good long shower. A real one, with water and gel — no modern spore rubbish. Her flight through the Gulf had lasted for what seemed like an eternity, leaving her stressed, aching, and exhausted. The tiny TD link back to her father had revealed the support and encouragement of a good proportion of her species, which had buoyed her along at the time. Now the residue of that emotion had fallen on her as an awesome feeling of responsibility. She was the ambassador for an entire universe to a whole different universe. It was all getting a bit much for her poor old biological brain to cope with.

After the shower she ate a decent salmon en croute and mint-buttered jersey potatoes, washed down with some champagne. The smartcore still hadn't recognized any nebulas by the time she'd finished her raspberry Pavlova. She was asleep less than a minute after lying down on the bed which the cabin extruded for her.

* * * * *

Ten hours later she woke. Rested and almost immediately impatient. The smartcore still couldn't find a recognizable nebula, not even with meticulous three dimensional projection of the ones it could map. Whatever angle it examined them from, they simply didn't match. Either she had emerged a very long way from Querencia. Or so much time had passed inside the Void that they had simply changed beyond recognition. Neither option was good.

The nearest star was three lightyears away. There was no detectable mass point between her and it.

Justine ate a light lunch, and told herself it was never going to be easy. Perhaps the Skylords were sailing towards her in their fabulously serene fashion. They were all slower than light creatures after all.

That afternoon, she rubbed medicating salves on her bruises, and ordered the gym to extrude for an hour's work out. She went to sleep with music playing quietly in the background, feeling not a little annoyed with the Skylords. And perhaps just a tinge claustrophobic. Or maybe that was agoraphobic. Would being completely alone in a universe bring a sensation of closing limitations or infinitely expanding horizons with associated loneliness?

On the second morning she had a light breakfast of eggs and toast. The (lightweight plastic) cup containing her freshly squeezed orange juice drifted across the cabin from the culinary unit and nestled into her open waiting (physical) hand.

'Yes!

Bandits and Ranalee watch out! There's a badass new girl in town.

Two days later every nebula had been thoroughly analysed. Justine had to face up to the simple fact: she was completely lost.

She ran a review of the ship's capability. The direct mass converter could power her almost indefinitely. Her small level-seven replicator could produce most of the ship's components. The few bots on board were capable of high-level maintenance. And best, or worst, of all, the medical cabinet could hold her in stasis for over a century without serious damage to her current body. It could also grow a clone and download her stored memories into it if her situation became extreme.

All in all, it was a pretty crappy way of whiling away your immortality.

However, the smartcore did report a few disturbing irregularities; not everything functioned perfectly the whole time. She saw unexplained glitches in the log of some systems. They'd always gone when she ordered a real-time review, and the analysis never gave any reason why they'd occurred in the first place. The only constant was that the more sophisticated the system, the more susceptible it seemed to be to the odd malaise.

She took another day to make her decision, or rather nerve herself up for what she knew had to be done. The ships whit li had brought the Waterwalker's ancestors to Querencia had fallen from the sky, or crashed. The legends were never clear on that. However, they had certainly never flown again.

Something in the Void was inimical to technology — presumably the different quantum structure underpinning what passed for spacetime in here. Though she was uneasy at the whole mental supremacy concept which the Void sustained; having the mind as king opened up some disturbing potentials. It could well be that the collective Heart was wishing the Silverbird to fail.

She did have confidence that the Silverbird was a lot tougher at every level than the old colony ships which had somehow blundered in here all those centuries ago. Her first instruction was for the smartcore to run a comprehensive analysis of the quantum structure, and from that to determine any conceivable reconfiguration which would make the ftl drive function again. Secondly, she used the small on-board confluence nest to amplify her own thoughts as she composed a message of greeting to the Skylords, asking them to find her, asking them to fly to her. A message it repeated ceaselessly.

After that the ingrav started to accelerate the little starship to point seven lightspeed towards the nearest star, a velocity which would take her there in a little over four years. The force fields could cope with a dust cloud impact at that velocity.

Justine ordered the smartcore to revive her at regular intervals, or in case of emergency. She reviewed the sensor images one last time. Nothing had changed outside. With that, she stepped into the medical chamber, and began the suspension process.

Inigo's Tenth Dream

The Poilus theatre was halfway along Doulon Lane, in the Cobara district. There was no sign outside, it occupied the cellars underneath the toyshop whose windows were full of brightly coloured wooden dolls and puppets. Entry was through a narrow doorway in a recess formed by the angle between the toyshop and the neighbouring tanner's. Two doorman in long dark coats stood outside, stamping their feet on the pavement to keep warm in the chilly midnight air.

Edeard and Kristabel arrived as the clock in Renan Plaza chimed quarter past the hour. When Edeard pushed his cloak's hood back the doorman gave a start, then smiled.

'They told us you'd be coming, he said. 'Welcome to the Poilus, Waterwalker. Mistress.

The door was opened, revealing curving stairs leading downwards. Warm air spilled up, accompanying a loud grumble of conversation and someone playing a guitar.

'He's about to start, the doorman added as Edeard led Kristabel down.

It grew warmer with each step. Edeard could sense the excitement growing in Kristabel's mind. She gave him a tentative smile as they reached the theatre itself. It was a broad vaulting chamber, with side alcoves converted to bars. Iron-caged oil-lamps on the walls complemented the small lighting strip at the apex of the ceiling. Edeard gave the glass bulbs a wary gaze. The far end of the cellar had a wooden stage, where the guitarist was struggling against the hearty voices of everyone crammed together on the main floor.

Kristabel took her coat off. Those nearest to her cast curious glances as they saw the pearl-encrusted blue silk gown she wore. Then Edeard shrugged out of his cloak, showing off his black and scarlet dress jacket with silver brocade and snow-white ruff shirt. There were a great many surprised grins.

'Hey-ho, the dandies have arrived, Macsen called out loudly.

Kristabel grinned, and hugged Macsen. Then Dinlay appeared, shoving a drink at Edeard. Boyd was laughing delightedly in greeting. Saria embraced Kristabel. A merrily drunk Kanseen gave Edeard a big kiss.

'What kept you? Dinlay demanded. He had his arm around the shoulders of a strapping girl whose flaming red hair reached down to her waist. Edeard struggled to make no comment; Dinlay always seemed to wind up with girls at least as big as himself.

'It was a good party, Edeard said loyally.

Kristabel laughed, and stroked his cheek. 'My poor boy, she said. 'He was so brave, she explained to the squad. 'All of Daddy's friends simply had to talk to him during dinner, and they're all as old and dull as him; then all their daughters wanted a dance afterwards.

Edeard gave Boyd a helpless shrug. 'This whole price of fame thing.

'Never mind, Macsen said eagerly. 'It will only ever be temporary. In ten years you'll be a fading memory, just some trivia question in a parlour game on New Year's Eve.

Edeard kissed Kristabel. 'You see, my loyalty training is finally working. She laughed and hugged him back. It was so easy, so natural. They both smiled happily at each other. Perfectly at ease. Edeard knew it wouldn't be long now, and the anticipation was a soothing warmth right in his heart. Nothing like the other girls he'd taken to bed where it was like he was in some kind of competition, nor even the cosy comfort of Jessile. Kristabel and him was going to be as perfect as two people could be together.

'Here he is, Dinlay yelled.

Up on stage Dybal ambled into view. A huge cheer went up from the audience as he waved. The rest of the band made their way on stage, three drummers, a saxophonist, a pianist, and two more guitarists. It might have been the haze of the Jamolar oil, or the quantity of very good wine Edeard had consumed back at the party, but Dybal and his band seemed to glow in bright colours. Their clothes were truly outrageous, and for that alone Edeard joined in the rapturous greeting.

The songs were fast and loud, the complete opposite of the tunes the musicians had played during the party. Lyrics spoke of love and loss, treachery and corruption, derided and mocked the Council. They were angry. They were sad. Music pounded Dybal's words home. Edeard and Kristabel danced wildly. They drank. He even took a drag on a couple of kestric pipes that were passed round. So did Kristabel, her mind radiating impious delight as she inhaled.

Dybal played for over an hour. Long enough for Edeard to be drenched in sweat. The theatre walls were running with condensation by the time he finished his second encore.

'That was fabulous, Kristabel said as she hugged Edeard. 1 can't believe the Council is still in power. Viva the revolution! She punched her fist in the air.

He hugged her back, and touched his nose to hers. 'That's your own father you're talking about.

'Who cares! She twirled around. 'Thank you for bringing me.

'I've been wanting to hear Dybal for a long time.

'Why didn't you?

Edeard shrugged. Around them, people were heading for the steps back up to the street, all of them tired and happy.

'I didn't want to come alone, he said.

The smile she answered with made the risk of such honesty worthwhile.

* * * * *

As soon as they came back out on to Doulon Lane, the squad went their various ways, calling goodnight to each other. There were very few people on the street at this late hour. Edeard buttoned up his cloak again before putting his arm around Kristabel. She leant in against him, her mind showing him complete contentment. They walked back towards the pool at the end of Garden Canal with the nebulas painting pale colours against the night sky. It might have been the residue of kestric but they seemed to have a lustrous sparkle as Edeard gazed up at them. Honious particularly tonight was beset by internal shimmering.

'You often do that, Kristabel said.

'What?

'Look at the nebulas.

'Do I? I suppose I just wonder how much we really do know about them.

'I can name most of them.

'Ah yes, but that's not knowing, is it? What are they really? Do you think our souls are destined to drift among them?

'The Lady says that's what befalls us if we don't lead a life that holds us true to ourselves.

'Yeah, he said grumpily as he thought back to those interminable Sunday mornings as a small boy at the back of Ashwell's church, with Mother Lorellan reading from the Lady's scriptures in a drab monotone. And who decides what true is?

Kristabel just pressed harder against him, humouring the strange doubts flecking his thoughts.

Her private gondola was moored at a platform on the edge of the pool, with a lamp swinging from the frame of the little canvas cabin. There wasn't much room inside. Edeard and Kristabel had to snuggle up close on the bench. She pulled a fur rug up round their legs. As the gondolier set off up Garden Canal, they began to kiss. He ran his hand through her abundant hair, tasting her lips, then her cheeks, her neck, returning to her mouth. She moaned excitably, her mind enraptured. Even their thoughts seemed to merge.

Eventually she pulled hack, giving him the most tender smile he'd ever seen on her delicate face.

'What? he asked. There was no way he could possibly have misunderstood her feelings. Few of the girls he'd know had ever been as open as Kristabel.

'I'm ready for this, she murmured sensually. 'And I know you are.

'Oh yes, he assured her.

'It's just—

'Your father?

'No, Daddy actually approves of you. He's not quite as traditional as he comes across.

Edeard couldn't help the grin of disbelief creeping across his face. 'I know.

'I think we both know this isn't going to be some casual affair.

'Yes. There was some echo of what she said that tickled at his subconscious, which he dismissed.

'So I want this to be right.

'It will be.

She kissed him lightly. 'It's very late. We've both been partying. You have patrol duty at seven tomorrow. None of that is good.